Edinburgh International Film Festival '14: Five Reviews

Koo! Kin-dza-dza (dir. Georgiy Daneliya & Tatiana Ilyna)

Image courtesy of EIFF

Present day Moscow. World famous cellist and cultural snob Vladimir Chizov and wannabe hipster DJ Tolik are accidentally catapulted onto a strange and desolate planet known as Puke. How will they make it back to Earth? This is the premise of Koo! Kin-dza-dza, an animated remake of the homonymous 1986 Soviet sci-fi satire. 

It's refreshing too see an animation that doesn't have to rely on CGI or 3D, especially when it skillfully infuses a picaresque story line with the absurdist touches of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. In the dune world of Pluke, inhabitants fall into two main categories - Patsaks and Chatlanians (the latter being the dominant people), a humble match (known as a ketse) is the most valuable item, and common sense doesn't seem to apply as strict hierarchies extend to the colour of pants one wears. The two main characters must fight their way through unreliable journey companions, perennial bribes and cacophony-loving  grandmothers. The comic darkness of this dystopian universe is  occasionally provided with light relief: it's hard not too smile when Vladimir plays his cello for an unusually appreciative and rather timid Plukian creature, or when Vladimir and Tolik seem to finally make an emotional connection.

For all its analogue ambition, Koo! Kin-dza-dza is far from perfect -  clocking in at 96 minutes, it feels overlong, leaving us with the impression that the script could have been much tighter in parts. 

Seeing this film presented again in the 21st century, when the USSR has become a distant memory makes for thought-provoking viewing, as its powerful depiction of laughable hierarchical structures, corruption and racism still resonates in contemporary Europe.

Koo! Kin-dza-dza 27 June, 18:15 at Odeon 2

[Erika Sella]

Anatomy of a Paperclip (dir. Akira Ikeda)

Director Ikeda Akira has stated that his starting point  for Anatomy of a Paperclip was his wish to create the modern equivalent of a Japanese folk tale.

The quiet, submissive Kogure is certainly the kind of character that can be found time and time again in both literature and film (his body language and tubby, inexpressive appearance reminded me Italian popular cinema staple Fantozzi); the linear simplicity and even pacing of the storyline (matched by the minimalist, deliberately two-dimensional and immaculately balanced, often symmetrical shots) are also somewhat reminiscent of a parable. 

Image courtesy of EIFF

The flat cinematography also complements the deadpan humour that springs from a world that has become devoid of pleasure - this is Japan, but not as we know it. Kugore lives in a small, bare room, works in a factory (which actually looks like a converted garage) where he is repeatedly abused by his horrific boss, survives on horrible food and is regularly taunted by a couple of thugs who have a penchant for stealing his clothes. This routine is gradually eroded by the vision of a butterfly (a presence usually loaded with meaning in Japanese culture) and the consequent appearance of a woman who speaks gibberish (a 'language' that was invented by the filmmaker) and decides to move into Kogure's bedsit without an explanation.

At the press screening, a fellow viewer felt that Anatomy of a Paperclip was 'essentially a Japanese remake of Eraserhead'; while the bleak, quietly hysterical  atmosphere that pervades the film may certainly recall some aspects of David Lynch's output, I felt this statement detracts from the film's complexity. This is a mysterious and often profound film; a poignant (yet very funny) comment about human nature and the meaning of interpersonal connections. 

Anatomy of a Paperclip, 28 June, 13:15 at Cameo 3

[Erika Sella]

Displaced Perssons (dir. Asa Blanck and Johan Palmgren) 

Image courtesy of EIFF

Pelle Persson is one of the most intriguing characters I have ever had the privilege to encounter on the big screen; perhaps inspired by a childhood adventure book (having recently watched Mark Cousin's A Story of Children and Film, I was reminded of Palle Alone in the World, and not simply because of the similarity of the main character's name), he sets off to adventure as soon as he is old enough to drive, living and working in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He eventually settles in Lahore, Pakistan, where he marries Shamin, and has two daughters. As his children reach adulthood, he finds that his liberal parenting idea clash with the local customs (the girls find they can't leave the house by themselves), and decides to return to his native Sweden. But can you ever go home again? 

This is a documentary that tackles complex issues such as identity, the meaning of national cultures and of family ties. It's hard not to like the Perssons as they face their Swedish adventure with defiance and a great deal of humour, but also with fear and maybe some regret; the camera only needs to sit back and watch them, letting the occasional title card guide us through the passing of time. We see the deadpan Shamin braving the freezing winter and unenthusiastically learning Swedish, Pelle having to prove to the local bureaucrats that he still exists in order to receive his pension, their daughter Zahra struggling with life-changing decisions. There is no place for stereotype here - both Sweden and Pakistan are represented in ways that we not normally accustomed to. We are faced with a family that don't conform to the narratives we are fed by the popular press: Pelle, Sharmin, Zahra and Mia all prove that identity is something complex, fluid and not necessarily defined by a country of birth, and that love and family really can overcome the biggest difficulties. As soppy as that might sound, there was not a dry eye at the screening - Displaced Perssons delivers the kind emotional punch that is becoming increasingly rare. Do not miss.

Displaced Perssons, 27 June, 18:10 at Cameo 3

[Erika Sella]

Snowpiercer (dir. Joon-ho Bong)

It’s quite startling that an actor better known as Captain America (AKA Chris Evans…no, not that one) to many should be the protagonist of a film that critiques Capitalism quite so overtly (if in an occasionally naïve, often daft way). The premise is a bit silly but clearly analogous: in a post-apocalyptic world, a train rattles around the world carrying three groups of people, the last humans left on Earth – an elite that lives at the luxurious front, a servile group that do their bidding, and lumpenproletariat that dwell in slum-like carriages at the rear. Evans’ Curtis leads a revolt, blood is shed and a fable of the perils of Capital emerges through action setpieces and a great deal of humour. It does feel a little lacking in nuance in its politics and is silly in that comic-book-film way at times, but is enjoyable all the same. John Hurt expertly plays the wise old man, Tilda Swinton is a hilariously grotesque Lancastrian spokesperson, Kang-ho Song amuses as the drug-addled security expert and Jamie Bell is an entertaining sidekick (if a little heavy on the Oirish Eejit schtick) to Evans’ hirsute and oh-so-tortured American hero. 

Image courtesy of EIFF

Snowpiercer may struggle to escape the inherent limitations of its form but is entertaining with both heart and head in the right place. One can’t help but feel that Harvey Weinstein has probably bludgeoned Joon-ho Bong’s film into something more straightforward for Anglophone audiences than it may have been in the form shown to audiences in South Korea and elsewhere, but entertains and manages to be not entirely brainless with it, which is more than can be said yer average comic book (sorry, graphic novel) adaptation.

Snowpiercer, 28 June, 20:15 at Cineworld 3

[Andrew R. Hill]

The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil (dir. John McGrath)

Buried treasure screened on Saturday afternoon as a part of Dick Fiddy of the BFI’s lovingly programmed Border Warfare: John McGrath’s Work in TV, Theatre, & Film thread at the EIFF 2014. John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil shouldn’t work; a Brechtian play filmed live (audience and all) with inserted dramatised exterior scenes (with different actors from those in the play), contemporary interviews with real people, Gaelic folk songs, Scottish country dancing and old-fashioned one-liner comedy collide in an hour and a half that is by turns tragic, didactic, polemical and hilarious.

The play takes three instances of the Scottish Highlands being carved up by outside forces, from the Clearances through to the Victorian stag hunting playground to North Sea oil. An unashamed attack on Capitalism, The Cheviot… is a breath-taking work of deceptive complexity – detailed, rich, informative, entertaining and moving. That it was screened on BBC One is astonishing now, especially on a weekend where the BBC News has proven itself to be little more than the propaganda wing of the Tory government, failing to report 50,000 people marching from its own headquarters to protest anti-austerity measures. That the film has yet to be released on DVD is, sadly, not much of a surprise – and, no, a screening on BBC Alba in 2012 isn’t enough (and Auntie’s tack has shifted all too far in the wrong direction in the interim). Luckily, YouTube saves the day – it  really is essential viewing. 

The EIFF should be commended for unshowily yet unashamedly political programming, in an era where artists (by which I include filmmakers, musicians and writers) seem content to shy away from politics altogether, for fear of alienating audiences – audiences that are often very receptive. John McGrath certainly was no such artist and the opportunity to discover (or, indeed, rediscover) his work is an unmissable opportunity.

[Andrew R. Hill]

Review: 'We Are the Best!'


 ‘Tell me something good about my life’    

 'You’re in the world's greatest band.’     


Lukas Moodysson is back with a film that, at least in spirit, resembles his debut feature Show Me Love (1998): here's the story of three teen outcasts who form a punk band. It’s 1982, and Bobo and Klara are having a tough time both at home and a school. Somewhat neglected by their horrifically liberal-bourgeois parents, and mocked by their peers for looking different, these girls know that something needs to be done: embracing what is best about DIY punk culture, they pick up bass and drums and write one (actually pretty good) song (‘Hate the Sport’). It doesn’t matter that they can’t play their instruments (although they get some musical coaching from the band’s third member, skilled guitarist Hedvig) – it’s their ideas and attitude that matter. 

Image courtesy of Metrodome

Image courtesy of Metrodome

Perhaps I was a soft target: We Are the Best! Feels really close to my heart because I was once a naïve, difficult teen who picked up a guitar and tried to form a band with my then-best friend. It didn’t matter that we never got out of her family’s freezing basement – we felt we were doing the most wonderful thing in the world.  Lukas Moodysson seems to know what it feels like to think you are on top of the world, when in reality you have little going for you: it’s great to see how these three girls bond, how they fight and make up, how they defiantly make a stand against a grey world populated by inane adults (the Youth Centre leaders, their PE teacher) and insipid schoolmates with crimped hair. They’re sketchily portrayed through a narrative that is for the most part episodic; yet the performances and clever (and very funny indeed) script ensure that we are left with an impression of well-rounded, believable characters.

It’s good to see a coming-of-age tale about females; whilst we are used to see young boys bond on screen, cinema’s depiction of teenage girls interacting tends to be outrageously inaccurate, peppered with either over-the-top bitchiness or sickening idealisations of pre-pubescent femininity.  Klara, Bobo and Hedvig bicker a lot, they questions each other’s authority and behaviour, they argue over boys and then eventually put it all right again, their friendship cemented by the experiences they share.

The portrayal of 1982 Stockholm is also something of a delight – a lot of films set in the 1980s  end up being cartoonish, especially when they feature music so heavily. Moodysson and his production design team handle the period setting with care, with little details such as pop-up toasters and Guzzini-like floor lamps being pointers that never feel too forced. The colours are soft and have a vintage 35mm film feel to them, but nothing here screams ‘retro’.

 It’s telling that We Are the Best!  feels so incredibly fresh – Moodysson just seems to have a natural knack at telling us stories about the all-too transient and often awkward period that is adolescence.  This is a film that definitely deserves to be seen widely (here’s hoping it inspires a new generation of riot grrls) – even for the last sequence alone, where the protagonists play a gig so riotous that it puts The Jesus and Mary Chain to shame. 

'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: 'Under the Skin'

Defining Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin as an alien invasion film wouldn't even begin to describe one of the most interesting cinematic excursions of the year - just as his previous films Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004) challenged the limitations of their specific genres (crime thriller and paranormal drama respectively), his latest work intelligently defies a viewer's expectations.

Image courtesy of Film 4

Image courtesy of Film 4

Under the Skin is based on a novel by Michel Faber; whilst Glazer remains faithful to the book's central idea (an alien arrives on earth looking for human prey), he reduces the narrative to a very basic, almost skeletal concept, abandoning most dialogue, and offering very little explanation for what happens on screen. Suitably, the film opens with a mysterious sequence that echoes Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey:  a series of close-ups of  a variety of abstract, circular shapes (perhaps signifying the rebirth of the alien, her mutation into human form) accompanied an eerie musical piece. The mood swiftly changes as we are transported to contemporary Glasgow, where our unnamed protagonist drives around in a white transit van, occasionally stopping young men to ask for directions or to offer them a lift. The alien is played by Scarlett Johansson, barely recognisable in a black wig and cheap fur coat. The effect of combining an A-list Hollywood star that is largely associated with glamorous hyper-sexuality with a context that seems so at odds with her persona is nothing short of exhilarating.  If the director was trying to tell us something about feeling alienated by a certain environment (the film arguably follows the protagonist's perspective), he is certainly successful in his aim. Glasgow is filmed in a a naturalistic manner that borders on cinema-vérité (part of the film was shot with hidden cameras) - real situations, real people, real shop fronts, real streets, real accents. This milieu is contrasted with Johansson's well-spoken, physically attractive persona - she is not only an alien (in both a tangible and metaphorical sense) roaming the streets of a busy city much like Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle did in Taxi Driver (1975), but also a fiercely alluring star from a world so far removed from the West of Scotland. 

The alien's aggressive and unsympathetic attitude changes in the latter part of the film when she suddenly abandons Glasgow for the majestic but stark Scottish countryside. Here, surrounded by a thick mist that becomes a signifier for her sense of isolation, she morphs into a vulnerable, confused figure that becomes the victim instead of the aggressor. Interestingly, she also starts coming to terms with her human body (an emblematic sequence involves Johansson curiously observing her naked body at the mirror): is her new frailty inseparable from the human form she finally feels aligned to? Or is the violence she is subjected to a comment on her 'woman as a sex object' status? Jonathan Glazer has stated that he did not intend to tackle gender issues with Under the Skinbut there are discernible feminist undertones in the way his protagonist's body becomes a central subject (maybe even the central subject) of the film.

Under the Skin is never impenetrable, but its esoteric nature, its 'openness' and its clever mix of different cinematic elements mean that multiple interpretations become possible. Scarlett Johansson's alien takes on a journey that  partly resembles a poignant coming of age tale, even though her desire to fit in never materialises. Jonathan Glazer leaves his mark all over this strange fable: his vision is capable of polarising audiences, but it also capable to provide a distinctive film experience that knows how to reward a viewer that can approach it with an open attitude.

Erika Sella

Review: 'The Robber'

The Robber is Filmhouse's third foray into film distribution. After the brilliant, but tragically under-exposed The Stoker and Vivan las Antipodas! their latest offering comes in the shape of a recent Austrian thriller dealing with a daring criminal who also happens to be a bit of a national sports hero. 

Image courtesy of Filmhouse

Image courtesy of Filmhouse

Director Benjamin Heisenberg was inspired by real-life bank robber Johann Kastenberger  (also known as 'Pump-gun Ronnie' after his penchant for wearing a Ronald Reagan mask), but this film is nothing like your average cine-biopic. 

We first meet Johann (Andreas Lust) as he is about to leave prison: we see him training, running on the treadmill he has been allowed to have in his cell. His counsellor encourages his sporting aspirations, but at the same time he warns his that running won't pay his bills.  We don't wonder about what the protagonist will do once he is again a free man for very long - in quick succession he successfully robs a bank and unexpectedly triumphs at the annual Vienna marathon. The viewer is not offered any explanation on why Johann would so blatantly risk his newly-found freedom: his motives are never made clear, there are no easy explanations for any of his decisions. Is he so dependant on the adrenaline that only running can supply him with? Maybe. In a way, our robber is portrayed as something of an 'existentialist' anti-hero. As he says to his love interest Erika (Franziska Weisz) as she attempts to change his ways, 'What I do has nothing to do with what you call life'. Conjoining running with a certain kind of rebelliousness is certainly nothing new: in a way, Johann is reminiscent of Colin Smith, the disaffected protagonist of The Loneliness of the Long Distance RunnerUltimately, though, there is nothing obvious about this man, as Heisenberg always keeps the viewer's at arms' length, making his character almost inscrutable. Even the relationship between Johann and Erika is never injected with the kind of romantic fervour (read: emotional manipulation) we are so accustomed to, their intimate, but ultimately awkward encounters making the viewer feel like a distant observer. The film could certainly be seen as 'cold' and calculated, almost an attempt to scientifically dissect its lead - a distinctive directorial choice that will inevitably alienate some casual audiences.

This is not to say that The Robber  lacks immediate cinematic pleasures. Andreas Lust offers an outstanding lead performance in a role that is extremely demanding from both a physical and emotional perspective. The film is almost flawlessly paced (only the third act loses a bit of steam), with the action sequences shot with accomplished skill; robberies and ensuing chase sequences have a raw, almost visceral energy that knowingly sustain tension and keep the viewer enthralled until the film's predictably bitter end.

The Robber  will be at the Filmhouse from Friday 21st March. Tickets are available here

Glasgow Film Festival 2014

Starred Up - dir. David MacKenzie

Image courtesy of Sigma Films

Image courtesy of Sigma Films

Eric Love (Jack O' Connell) is a young offender who gets transferred to adult prison due to his hard to control, violent behavior - early on in the film, he earns the designation ' single cell, high risk'. By a twist of fate, his father Nev (Ben Mendelsohn) is also on the same wing......

I must admit I wasn't overjoyed at the premise of David MacKenzie's new film. Even though I am a fan of his solid body of work (including Young Adam and Hallam Foe), I wondered what else there was to add to the prison drama 'subgenre'.

Whilst Starred Up hardly brings anything new to the table, it somehow manages to tell a story that has cliché written all over it (the difficult father-son relationship, the generous but misunderstood counsellor, the corrupt prison guards) in a fresh, and ingenious manner. Yes, it is 'gritty', and yes, it tries to be 'authentic' with his handheld camera shots and 'real' location (a disused Belfast prison), but it also portrays characters that are anything but one-dimensional and that remain largely unknowable. Eric, his father and the rest of the inmates go beyond the good vs bad distinction that is usually a staple for this kind of film. Their behaviour is largely erratic and unpredictable. Similarly, counsellor Oliver (Rupert Friend) is well-meaning, but clearly has some issues of his own. Is his interest in Eric just limited to his job requirements? Questions like this are not met by easy answers: the dialogue is kept to a bare minimum, and is often simply hard to understand. The cast seem to communicate in an almost primitive way. Of course, this could be a consequence of living in an environment that is clearly dehumanising, but it also gives an impression that we are witnessing a story that is interested in human nature in its most basic form. The images on screen seem to confirm this impression: every burst of violence is carefully choreographed, and takes on a meaning that goes beyond the immediacy of the action. The film's 'naturalism' is clearly not what it superficially appears.

Starred Up ends with a shot of a revolving door (a recurrent image throughout the film): it left me wondering whether this is simply a nihilistic reference to the  never-changing nature of the British prison system or more of a reflection on the vicious circle that violence often produces. 

Erika Sella

The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears - dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

I  mage courtesy of BFI

Image courtesy of BFI

Who doesn't love a Giallo? The last decade seems to have brought a massive revival for the 60s/70s Italian 'genre', Glossy DVD releases, conferences at film festivals, academic books, countless website and blogs, and Berberian Sound Studio

Cattet and Forzani are clearly fans, as this is their second venture (after 2009's Amer) that heavily references this source material. The Giallo semiotic staples are all there: a killer with black gloves, plently of female nudity, the 'groovy' soundtrack, the Art Nouveau building (heavily reminiscent of the dance school in Suspiria),   At one point, there is a very direct nod to the much-loved The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh  as the protagonist 'enjoys' a sexual encounter involving shattered glass. 

The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears should not be judged on the basis of its stick-thin plot (a man trying to unravel the mystery of his wife's disappearance) - beyond its excessive cinematography, and its very core, it is not a giallo, (in many of the Italian thrillers, scripts were convoluted and often nonsensical, yet fundamental part of what made them enjoyable), but rather something more akin to early Buñuel or to Jodorowsky. Yet, despite its art house aspirations, this film is an overall fail: very quickly, its 'cinema of attractions' strategy (a cavalcade of kaleidoscopic effects, split screens, blinding primary colours etc. ) appears thin and tiresome, leaving the viewer with very little to get stuck in.  

The general impression I was left in was that of an over-long, humorless and very pretentious music video. A real shame seen that the filmmakers' attempt to breath new life into a still underrated genre is a valiant and worthy one. 

Erika Sella

Of Horses and Men - dir. Benedikt Erlingsson

Image courtesy of Icelandic Film Centre.

Image courtesy of Icelandic Film Centre.

Benedikt Erlingsson's Of Horses and Men is a funny, brutal, humane, charming film that looks at the lives of a rural community through a series of interlocking vignettes. Unsurprisingly, horses feature heavily and are central to the characters' stories, livelihoods, romances, misadventures and (in a couple of cases) deaths. The backdrop might be so barren as to border on the lunar but warmth permeates throughout, even at its most shockingly violent junctures (which are often immediately preceded by comedy that borders on the slapstick). As with the lives of these characters (their stories, their horses), the comic and the tragic interweave, are rarely far removed from one another; it is an approach that was always bound to endear the film to to a Scottish audience - the two are practically inseparable here, after all.

Of Horses and Men is a deftly executed, uplifting set of stories that looks at the characters relationships with their environment, the animals on which they rely, and each other, without ever piling on cloying sentimentality - impressive given that horses seem to be afforded a particular status that few other animals are (cf Findus lasagne-gate 2013, War Horse, etc.). The same night the film was presented at the GFF, the film did very well at the Edda Awards, the 'Icelandic Oscars'; it's unsurprising the myopic, increasingly irrelevant American equivalent overlooked a film of such wit and depth (the film was Iceland's - ultimately unselected - entry to this year's Academy Awards Best Film in a Foreign Language category) - this film sees no need to make sweeping commentary on Life. Its specifics relate to a way of life that is obscure to many, probably most, and yet this specificity creates a universality with which one can identify and enjoy without resorting to trite overstatements - it has subtleties far-removed from the majority of the string-laden statue-bait. Unfortunately, it's likely to be a case of 'catch it if you can' rather than 'while', but the sentiment remains the same.

Andrew R. Hill

'30 Odd Years' - Vic Godard

vic godard 30 odd years cover.jpg

BBC 6 Music DJ (and former member of The Fall) Marc Riley refers to Vic Godard as ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’ and after listening to 30 Odd Years quite a few times now, it’s hard to disagree (as far as songwriters go, anyway). His influence in the late-‘70s was significant and it resonates to this day. Godard (né Napper) took the emancipatory energy of punk and applied his inchoate yet sophisticated songwriting nous to it, filtering a variety of genres through both over the decades. From 1978’s Don’t Split It through to a 2012 rendition of 1992’s Johnny Thunders with Davey Henderson’s marvellous Sexual Objects, there’s no ‘Joey-punk’ knuckle-dragging and not a hint of flab.

The first disc is the more straightforward of the two, although it may raise the eyebrows of the hitherto uninitiated: it starts off punk (albeit with a smart, cutting, ‘60s garage edge), develops into Velvets-tinged pop, swings into full ‘Cole Porter’ mode in the middle, briefly turns off into the best Bond themes you’ve never heard (Spring is Grey and Stayin’ Outta View (Instrumental)) and ends with muscular Edwyn Collins-produced Northern Soul. All this could surprise even the seasoned fan with a full pre-existing familiarity with the individual songs.

The second disc initially follows naturally enough with We’ll Keep Our Chains from Godard’s second Collins-produced Long Term Side-Effect – melodic, tough, a bit off kilter and underpinned with that trademark Northern Soul swing. But then the generic twist-turns begin to emerge in ever more awe-inspiringly unexpected ways. First there are two infectious gospel songs from LTS-E and then we’re into turn-of-the-century urban with The Writer’s Slumped, which has more than a hint of Missy Elliott’s Get Yr Freak On about it (which came first, one wonders?). There’s even Godard classics such as Ambition with a distinct good-ole-fashioned-hoe-down bent, blackly funny music hall in the form of Blackpool (the theme to an ill-fated theatre collaboration with Irvine Welsh) and the jaunty, accordion-led, Brechtian number The Wedding Song. The most incredible thing about all of these diversions is how natural it all sounds – partly a testament to picking collaborators of the finest calibre but primarily due to being possessed of a songwriting talent, an authorial voice, so definite and distinct as to frequently leave one breathless.

The last song proper is the aforementioned live rendition of Johnny Thunders with The Sexual Objects. Recorded at Stereo in Glasgow in December 2012, it was a performance that was a part of a series of events dubbed VIC.ism, the weekend-long Glasgow leg of which celebrated Godard’s influences, influence and his special connection to the local music scene (his connection to Scotland is emphasised further by excerpts of the late Edinburgh poet Paul Reekie discussing Godard and Subway Sect on the short intro and outro tracks). 30 Odd Years reinforces the extent to which Godard’s back catalogue and fulsome talents deserve to be celebrated and emphatically so. Even the Godard/Sect aficionado is likely to uncover a fresh understanding, not least because of the wealth of alternative versions, radio sessions and live recordings on offer. The promise of a further Edwyn Collins-produced record, 1979 Now, later in the year is very exciting indeed, and if ever a 40 Odd Years appears, one could be confident it would be every bit as essential a listen as its predecessor.

'30 Odd Years' is available now on Gnu Inc Records on CD and download.

Andrew R. Hill

'Wig Out At Jagbags' - Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

SM&TJ Wig Out cover.jpg

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks’ 2011 album Mirror Traffic was rightly hailed as one of the highlights of the former Pavement singer’s solo career so far. Much was also made of how much it sounded like Pavement, but Malkmus and his backing band have never really drifted all that far from the sound for which he is still best known. The new record, Wig Out At Jagbags, is slighter than Mirror Traffic even if does occasionally feature a broader palette of instrumentation than one was accustomed to hearing from Pavement. One such song is Smoov J, which features a muted horn solo, subtle Hammond and synth strings and trips into outer space on delayed lead lines, before floating gently back to Earth on an acoustic guitar.

Wig Out At Jagbags is sprightly, brief and occasionally throwaway, albeit in the best possible way. Although actually placed closer to the end of the record, Rumble at the Rainbo and Chartjunk feel centrally placed and are rather, well, fluffy - they’re great fun and not much else; the former is particularly amusing as a cutting observation of an ageing punk/’punk’ scene, and the latter features a buoyant horn section ‘70s-toned rolling electric piano.

 There’s plenty of melody on this breezy album, but the more cryptic the lyric, the harder it is to connect with it. The wordplay is certainly entertaining (and this kind of lyric writing has been a frequent marker of Malkmus’ songwriting since it first emerged over two decades ago) and reflects an occasional stoned feeling that manifests itself in a kind of absent-minded psychedelia (as opposed to the almost hard rock feel of some earlier Jicks material). There’s no denying there’s a lot of skill in the way these songs have been written and there’s plenty to enjoy, however slippery the (sometimes hyperactive) abstractions get.

'Wig Out At Jagbags' is released today on Domino in the UK and tomorrow on Matador in the US.

 Andrew R. Hill

Review: 'Virgins' - Tim Hecker

 Tim Hecker’s last album proper, 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972, was a sepulchral affair; true to its title, the ghost of a kind of rave music oscillated throughout but through a murky, foggy, doom-laden haze. It was cold yet overwhelming, appropriate given that much of it was recorded on the organ in an Icelandic church. Virgins carries through many of the melodic and sonic markers of Ravedeath, 1972 (including that recurring fogginess) but is altogether more spectral, more colourful, albeit no less mysterious.

Image courtesy of Kranky.

Image courtesy of Kranky.

Opening track Prism is well named, light cuts through clouds of aural murk, then transforms into the piercing, chaotic, trebly piano arpeggi of Virginal I which glisten, flicker, dim in the dark. Already the melodies (if that’s the right word) reflect that of Ravedeath, 1972, but it’s not about the melodies, it’s a record that continues Hecker’s exploration of texture. He reflects a kind of abstract expressionism, Rothko blown up to an even greater, gothic scale, strip-lit and metamorphosing before your eyes. Such verbiage may invoke a digital version of, say, Morton Feldman but Virgins is no For Philip Guston, it’s not self-important and it billows along at a pace, Lynch meets Argento. There are traces of the latter’s favoured composers Goblin, as well as the former’s forays into in sound design and composition (most particularly the industrial soundscape of Eraserhead); Live Room is the more bombastic moments of Suspiria both inflated and muted, twisted, creepy, with creaking, straining, diegetic sound thrown in too – you’re in the horror film with the score deafening you as you desperately scramble away from your assailant.

If that all sounds over-the-top then the empurpled prose is at fault, not the music which - while demanding to be played at considerable volume - is never anything other than well measured. For all its BIG moments, Virgins also has plenty of quieter ones too, as with Live Room Out, the ghostly, more minimal sibling of its similarly named predecessor, or Black Refraction’s repeating piano motifs, fragments of a depressed Satie heard through a stretched tape loop at a séance, clattering medium’s table and all. The use of ‘real’ or ‘room’ (read non-instrumental) sound in some ways disrupts the engagement of the listener, but it also draws the listener further in – what noise is in the room or environment that you occupy, and what is on the record?

This is one of the more readily identifiable markers of what makes Hecker such a peerless composer-producer; while the use of digital instruments and manipulation is overt, its collision with the acoustic, the analogue and the ‘real’ often leaves one unclear as to where one element ends and the other finishes; this miasma never feels forced (although it does sometimes feel like there are elements being pushed together with great force), it is always purposeful.

Virgins may not be a work that seems terribly subtle on first approach, but it is in fact nuanced, intriguing, entrancing, disquieting. Just as Francis Bacon’s art sought to “Return the onlooker to life more violently”, Virgins finds Hecker approaching a return of the listener to life more spectrally (in both sense of the word). There is a deep, dark undertow to this record, but light pierces the void in continually surprising ways, in a kind of inverted chiaroscuro; Hecker ably demonstrates that light is essential to render the darkness all the more appealing.


Tim Hecker’s ‘Virgins’ available worldwide on Kranky (except for Canada where it is available on Paper Bag Records).


Andrew R. Hill

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


'Loud City Song' - Julia Holter


I began writing this review this as I returned to Edinburgh from London. It’s far from the first time I’ve visited but it was an intense sojourn. I’ve lived in a city all my life (albeit one that feels more like a village sometimes), but even with the seemingly endless noise of the Festival crowds still ringing in my ears, my arrival is met by the roar of the city - a city that is almost too big, too sprawling, to be appropriately accommodated by the term - and it is keenly felt, amplified by the briefness of the encounter. Nothing is quiet. Even late in the night, the city emits a low-level thrum, an electric buzz. Its very scale, in all directions, presents a kind of loudness, whether sonic or visual, actual or imagined. Julia Holter’s Loud City Song does not take London as its titular subject (that honour is bestowed up on Holter’s native Los Angeles as a transposed setting from Paris for Colette’s Gigi) but it does convey the sense of wonder, unreality, confusion and fear that a city can reveal as it unfolds slowly to you for the first time.

Loud City Song opens in an arresting and captivating fashion with World. “Heaven/All the heavens of the world.” Her naked voice is slowly dressed by sparse, solemn instrumentation, strings that creak in heavy groans and sighs in an arrangement that is reminiscent of Scott Walker and solo Mark Hollis – disjointed lyrics can only lend further credence to this comparison (a comparison that can easily be applied to other parts of the record). Holter discusses “All the hats of the world” and her, her hat and the city’s relationships. Then “Everyday I grow older/Every day I grow a bit closer to you”. Closer to who? The song closes thus: “What am I looking for in you?/How can I escape you?” Is it a lover? An assailant? The listener? The city? Death? World is a disquieting and enigmatic beginning to an album that asks more questions than it provides answers to, a quality that makes it all the more enticing - enthralling, even.

World’s questions linger unanswered with a plunge into the immediately hypnotic, intense, blissful Maxim’s I. “I don’t understand” Holter declares, and the music reflects the statement, presenting a scene of cinematic awakening. Impressions of woozy unearthliness recur throughout, and while this has been Holter’s stock-and-trade since her debut album Tragedy, the greater possibilities - and constraints – of recording in a ‘proper’ studio for the first time have galvanised her sense of the otherworldly in a far more compelling way. He previous record Ekstasis was full of ethereal melodies and disembodied lyrics, but it occasionally drifted dangerously close to the New Age insipidity of Enya. Such a flirtation occurs only once on Loud City Song, at its midpoint of (Barbara Lewis cover) Hello Stranger – it’s just a bit too ambient and uncomplicated for its own good, letting swathes of digital reverb do most of the work; that it is a cover speaks volumes of the strength of Holter’s songwriting.

Hello Stranger does provide a necessary break in the album, for all its mildly irritating execution. The album has a dizzying and at times overwhelming build. The third track Horns Surrounding Me pulses insistently then breaks into coruscating organs, delayed vocals and clouds of billowing horns that threaten to engulf both Holter and the listener; the following In The Green Wild builds playfully around lolloping double bass, detuned sound effects and chatty backing vocals before drifting into another place: “There’s a humour in the way they walk/Even the flower walks/But doesn’t look for me/It walks just as it’s grown/It’s laughing so naturally/Ha ha ha ha”. Is this the disoriented city-dweller in the country (as is suggested by the title), or could it be the reverse?

After the wafting ambience of Hello Stranger, Maxim’s II is a curious mix of the acoustic and the synthesized, and brings to mind early solo Brian Eno, as this album occasionally does. Something in its mix of light and shade, pop hooks and out-and-out strangeness, as well as the recurrence of a certain kind of vocal double tracking that echoes Another Green World or Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.

Loud City Song continuously throws curveballs – who expects the almost aggressive Maxim’s II to be followed by the genuinely beautiful piano-and-strings ballad of He’s Running Through My Eyes? Who could expect that to be followed by the playful foray into ‘80s-style MOR pop (albeit a thoroughly subversive and somewhat surreal one, despite the synthetic bossa beat and oh-so-smooth sax solo), This is a True Heart? And then, who could expect the unashamedly cinematic (there’s that word again) finale of City Appearing? On the latter, Mark Hollis once again springs to mind, as does The Walker Brothers’ weirdest moment The Electrician, and this follows a track that sounds a bit like Spandau Ballet or Chris de Burgh if they were female-and-interesting-and-really-good-not-totally-atrocious.

City Appearing opens from a bare voice (like World) and into a slow ecstasy, “Taken by surprise/Taken through the city”. It’s a spaced-out late night taxi drive, a neon sunrise through a rain-spattered window. A cacophony builds, dazzling, spectral - late period Talk Talk on MDMA - then bursts, shimmers…and it’s gone. Like a dream you never want to end, the release into the real word is a shocking one. Dreams tend to slip away over time, become less detailed, degrade; in this sense Loud City Song is far less like a dream and more like a city: one' s experience of it is a continually renewing process of revelation; this record unveils new corners, light and dark, with every visit – disquieting, elusive and seductive.

'Loud City Song' is available on Domino Records now, on CD, LP and download formats. 

Andrew R. Hill


Shun Li and the Poet

'The question is: how to give human life its historical importance at every minute.' Cesare Zavattini (writer of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D)

image courtesy of Film Movement

image courtesy of Film Movement

Shun Li and the Poet is a 'small', ordinary, everyday story about people trying to connect with each other and with their surroundings. It's also one of the most arrestingly charming films the Italian film industry has produced in the last ten years.

Evoking the spirit of Neorealism, this film captures something about contemporary life by the Venetian lagoon (it is set in Chioggia, a coastal town 25 km south of Venice with a strong local tradition) through its attention to mundane details and the precision taken in depicting a place obviously close to the director's heart. It is not coincidence that the film-maker in question, Andrea Segre, has a background in documentary-making and sociology; he is also a 'local boy', and clearly knows his milieu inside out. This is not the Italy of postcards, of BBC food programmes: Chioggia looks misty, earthy, desolate. Its streets, even its pubs, get flooded. Its inhabitants are stoic, non-nonsense people who have an ambiguous relationship with the new, 'cosmopolitan' aspects of their everyday life.

The 'new' is represented by Shun Li, a young Chinese immigrant who is sent to work in a local pub by the traffickers who brought her to Italy. Osteria Paradiso is a typical small town Venetian pub, the kind of place where local fishermen have been frequenting for generations. The protagonist, a silent and rather introverted woman, is seen as isolated and hanging on to the more traditional aspects of her native culture through the figure of ancient poet Qu Yuan; at the beginning of the film she is even ridiculed by a fellow immigrant ("Why do you care about these things? We're in Italy now!'). This changes as she begins speaking the local language and understanding her customers' very peculiar and personalised drink orders, she appears to be building a  tentative bridge with her new surroundings.

   Image courtesy of Film Movement

 Image courtesy of Film Movement

She finally makes a real connection with one of the fishermen, Bepi, a Croatian who moved to Chioggia thirty years earlier. He has integrated well in the locals (he is known as 'the poet' for his way with words and rhymes), but somehow he still views himself as an outsider. Their fragile and ephemeral relationship is portrayed with subtlety and is genuinely moving – the scene where she visits his fishing hut sticks out as one of the key moments in the film. It is also a chance for the subtle, but highly effective cinematography to shine in its full glory: for the first time we see the sun, and our eye lingers on the mesmerising beauty of the mountains on the horizon.

Predictably their friendship is looked at by the townsfolk with suspicion – what can this quiet Chinese woman want from the elderly Bepi? The Chioggians live side by side with the Chinese community, but it is taken for granted that the two shall never make contact.  In the film, the lagoon takes on a powerful symbolic meaning. Chioggia is surrounded and often engulfed by waters that are effectively 'trapped' and separate from the sea; it is a place that is worn out by its own habit and resistant to any sort of change.

Despite its exploration of themes such as xenophobia and labour exploitation, Shun Li and the Poet never feels didactic or finger-waving: Andrea Segre has succeeded in waving together a film that will haunt this writer for a long time.

Shun Li and the poet is available on the Filmhouse Player. 

Erika Sella 

EIFF 2013: A Story of Children and Film

Following the making of his fifteen and a half hour epic documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey - a project that took six years to shoot – Mark Cousins made the poetic film essay What is this film called Love? in just three days, a film that was a meditation on the nature of happiness (among other things). What is this film called Love? functioned as a kind of creative palate-cleanser for Cousins and, unlike the herculean effort of The Story of Film, was spontaneous, unplanned. A Story of Children and Film (that indefinite article is important) feels, in more ways than one, to be a meeting of the two films, a historiography of cinema through a personal prism, prompted by a chance incidence of home recording.

Image courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  

Image courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  

The film was inspired by an unplanned recording of Cousins’ niece and nephew playing in his Edinburgh flat one morning and takes its structural queues from the themes he found in this ad hoc footage (and then some). These themes encompass shyness, social class, the strop, enacted parenting, conflict, dreams and adventure (among others). In his distinctive and captivating (captivated, even) Ulster brogue, Cousins leads us through fifty-one films from Denmark in the ‘40s (Palle Alone In The World), Iran in the ‘70s (Two Solutions For One Problem), Japan in the ‘90s (Children In The Wind) and the USA of the current decade (Moonrise Kingdom); his selection encompasses directors as diverse as Bill Douglas, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel to explore his chosen themes.

At one point the unnatural (actually somewhat creepy) performance of Shirley Temple in Irving Cummings’ Curly Top is contrasted with Margaret O’Brien’s bum note laden duet with Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me In St Louis, Cousins remarks that "We are spellbound by [O’Brien]” – we are, but we’re spellbound by this film too, entirely apposite given its subject; we marvel with childlike wonder at both children in cinema and at cinema itself. This only serves to illustrate and underline the thrust of the film, “Could it be that kids are movies? That the movies are kids?” That would be an eye-rolling moment had these questions come at the end of a film that did not so subtly nudge us towards this conclusion all the way through, and it’s a very convincing argument, beguilingly executed. Cinema in its purest experience is open to the world and open to everyone, everything; it is egalitarian, simple, profound, honest, fantastical - these qualities only get disrupted when adults (or, perhaps, ‘adults’) get in the way.

Andrew R. Hill

EIFF 2013: Blackbird

Last Tuesday EIFF hosted an interesting lecture led by Scottish film scholar Colin McArthur; the talk was titled 'What Sort of (Scottish) Film Culture Do We Want?' and it was expected to build on what the Scotch Reels event had covered back in 1982. McArthur launched a bit of an attack on Tartanry, and used Murray Grigor's Scotch Myths to prove his point.  Scottish cinema has undeniably made a lot of progress on the international stage in the last 30 years, but the question of representation remains: what sort of image do you want to project? How do we see ourselves?

It is an issue which Jamie Chamber's Blackbird bravely tackled. It is a film enamoured with Scottish history and a certain type of traditional culture; it is also a film that asks questions about the role of these traditions have to play in a contemporary setting.


Courtesy of EIFF

Courtesy of EIFF

Blackbird follows the tribulations of Ruadhan, a young man living in a nameless fishing village in the South West of Scotland. He lives on a decrepit boat moored on a hill and is bewitched by found objects belonging to a seemingly distant past and by folk songs sang by the village's elders. Obsessed with preserving a culture that is slipping away as older people die and youngsters flee to the cities, he soon finds himself at odds with his neighbours and friends. He is saddened by what he sees as the intentional erasing of the past (perhaps exemplified by the belongings of deceased songbird Isobel being thrown in a junk shop) and by the inevitable advent of the new (in the form of a bistro selling hummus and olives).

It is a negotiation between the past and the present, the local and the global that reminds us of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, although Chambers' approach is definitely less whimsical. The Edinburgh-born director is clearly fascinated with traditional songs and with the village's culture; his camera lovingly lingers on symbolic items like seashells, and captures the sad beauty of something that is about to disappear.

Blackbird is not only pleasing on the eye, but also features some great performances from the supporting cast – chiefly from Norman Maclen, who plays the unsentimental and very witty Alec with tantalising enthusiasm.


Courtesy of EIFF

Courtesy of EIFF

Unfortunately, the film's merits are somewhat muted by a script that at times relies too much on moments of 'high drama'; Ruadhan's character becomes defined by constant bursts of anger (his stubbornness is maybe admirable, but blinkered, and his attitude is questionable at best) and loses the subtlety that might have helped the Blackbird live up to its initial promise.

Nevertheless, it is a film that should be praised for a memorable and vivacious portrayal of a village caught between fondness for a strong tradition and willingness to find a place in the modern world. It doesn't provide any easy answers (the resolution feels rushed and unbelievable), but it is a timely reminder that folk culture deserves to be safeguarded and carried into the future.

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