Thursday, 17 April 2014

Willow and Wind - The Cinema of Childhood - Filmhouse, Edinburgh


As I drive to work I view the city I live in from behind a pane of glass.

The buildings.

The people.

The hills.

The grass.

The wind.

The rain.

The warmth of the sun.

At home I am aware of the world around me.

I "experience" it via a pane of glass.

The screen of my television.

I see the joy and the heartache of the lives of others.

I see war, love, violence, misery, friendships, resolutions.

When I want to get in touch with friends and family it is often done remotely...through yet another pane of glass; the screen of my 'phone, the screen of my computer.

I email.

I text.

At home, on the way to work and in my "relations" with those I love I am, very often, behind a pane of glass.

That glass denying me the opportunity to feel the rain falling on my face.

That glass separating me from experiences...real, visceral experiences.

That glass creating a barrier between me and those I connections with them being reduced to virtual encounters.

When I was eight years old my friend Darren Millar challenged me to a race.

The rules were very clear.

We would run around the block in opposite directions and the first one back to my front door would be the winner.

As I rounded the first corner I lost my footing and fell into a pile of broken glass.

I still have the scar on my forearm.

There was a lot of blood.

There was a lot of pain.

There was a lot of concern from my mum.

There were hugs and kisses too.

In that case a broken pane of glass brought me into physical contact with people and pain.

In "Willow and Wind" director Mohammad Ali-Talebi takes a pane of glass and uses it to present us with something greater...almost metaphysical.  The glass is a means of confronting us with the challenges that each of us faces in our lives.  In the film the challenges are faced by a schoolboy who, after breaking the window in his classroom while playing football, is told that he must replace the pane or be expelled.

What follows is, in all probability, one of the greatest films you have never seen.

Friendships are formed.

The awful inadequacies of most adults are exposed.

The indefatigability of children is highlighted.

Triumphs and tragedies lift you high and plunge you low.

The pane of glass here is a means for us to feel all of those things we are normally disconnected from by windows and screens.  From a simple premise Ali Talebi creates a film that is funny, warm, inspiring and Hitchcockian...I promise you, the suspense is the equal of anything that the great man ever managed.

So, if you feel the need to connect with people, with your emotions and with the child inside you then you could do much worse than to sit behind the screen of your computer and watch a masterpiece thanks to the miracle of Filmhouse Player.

Find the time to tweet Mark Cousins once you've watched it...just to say "Thanks".

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Not Another Happy Ending - EIFF 2013




Hello and thank you for calling "Dial-a-cliche".  Currently all of our operatives are busy on other calls but if you are in desperate need of a cliche we would like to recommend that you watch "Not Another Happy Ending".  Trust us, there isn't a single cliche from either rom-com or Scottish "culture" that the makers of this film haven't shoe-horned into this utterly risible piece of cinema.

Thanks again for your call.

If you do decide to watch "Not Another Happy Ending" can we also take this chance to provide you with the number for The'll need it.

A rom-com should be two things...romantic and comedic.

"Not Another Happy Ending" has decided to do something truly groundbreaking by being neither.

There were more laughs in Gasper Noe's "Irreversible" than there were in this.

More romance too.

Before the screening I had to endure the awful sight of Chris Fujiwara gamely trying to present this film in a manner that made it sound like we were in for a treat.  Fujiwara is a serious and well respected figure in the world of film.  He is a film journalist and author.  He is supremely knowledgeable on a variety of different directors, genres and actors.  To find himself presenting a film such as this must have been the lowest point of his very distinguished career.

The lead roles are played by Karen Gillan and Stanley Weber...between them they conjure up less chemistry than a GCSE biology textbook.  They play hateful and two dimensional characters in a hateful and one dimensional film.  Gillan is particularly dreadful...a wonderful clothes horse she may be but an actress with any comic ability she is not.  She has all the presence and personality of a Coldplay album.  As for Weber, a man with a fine pedigree (his dad is Jacques Weber) but who manages to honk his way through this film like a demented seal.

Dull and duller.

Neither is helped by a script that seems to revel in the trite and the twee.  Set in the oh so glamorous world of Glasgow publishing we are treated to a host of spectacularly tepid character sketches but no real people.  One such character is a school teacher who, hilariously, teaches his pupils half-truths and bald faced lies...honestly, I was in stitches...until I remembered that I wasn't.  The comedic highlight of this characters journey is when he pretends to be, wait for it, an old man who drives a taxi!  How does he pull this off?  He puts on a flat cap, glasses and wraps a scarf around his face!  I told you.  Brilliant.

The film does have one moment of genuine dramatic tension though.  Webers character is Gillans encourage her to finish her second novel he decides she must be made miserable and so to ensure that she is plunged headlong into the sort of despair that gives birth to great art he...steals her pot plant.  At that point everyone in the cinema was on the edge of their seats.  Gripping doesn't come close to describing this.

There are very many excellent films that you haven't seen.  Find one of those and be thankful that I watched this on your behalf.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Blackbird - EIFF 2013

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty"

Keats the romantic poet, the most romantic poet perhaps understood that in life, and in art, the only real beauty is found in truth.  That truth, of course, isn't answering every question asked of you with sledgehammer honesty...honesty and truth are, I think, different things altogether.  Truth is about the internal, the vision, the spirit of things where honesty is about the external, the surface of things.

"Blackbird" is a beautiful film because of the truth that lies at the heart of every element.

Things that matter are dying.

Language, culture, music, community, family and industry.

Each, thanks to the brutality of the modern world and the modern worlds seeming never ending desire to be more modern is being eroded and corroded.  Of course it is this very world that has created the conditions for a film like "Blackbird" to exist.

Ruadhan (Andrew Rothney) is jobless, feckless and, in one sense, homeless.  He spends his days trying to catch and collect fragments of the past from the elders of his coastal village.  Folk songs, sea shells, clothes pegs and an accordion all find their way into his boat.  A boat, that like Ruadhan, cannot set sail because it is rooted on the land.

When one of the old folks passes away and his guru, and tormentor, Alex (Norman Mackie) falls foul of frailty Ruadhan begins to realise that his chances of safeguarding the past he holds so dear is slipping away from him.  This and the arrival of Amy (Scarlett Mack) sees him tumble headlong into a depression that threatens to isolate him from his friends and his community.

There is always a danger that Scottish films, or films about Scotland, can become parochial or twee.  "Blackbird" manages to avoid both by being a film set in Scotland but that is about much bigger issues than just Scottish identity.  It is, instead, a film about love, about identity, about the modern world, about the past, about death, about life...universal themes that mean "Blackbird" flies high above the likes of any shortbread tin cinema experience you can think of.

A film with heart and soul and one that dares to be true and in so doing manages to be beautiful in every sense.  A haunting soundtrack that accompanies some of the most stunning cinematography I have seen at this years EIFF alongside lovely performances from the likes of Rothney, Mack and Patrick Wallace make this a film that also stands up to repeat viewings; I'm on my third in as many days.

"Blackbird"...truly beautiful.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

A Story of Children and Film - EIFF 2013

This is not the story of children in film.

This is a story of children in film.

Maybe though it isn't really a story at all.

Maybe story isn't all that important.

Children are important.

Childhood is important.

This is a poem about children and about childhood.

This film is poetry in motion.

This film is, like all great poetry, pure emotion.

Children are shy...they don't like to be looked at.

Children are performers...they want to be looked at.

Children are fearless...they don't care about the cold.

Children are afraid...they care about the lack of warmth from those who are meant to love them.

Childhood is full of conflicting emotions...from the peaceful to the explosive.

Mark Cousins watches his niece and nephew, Laura and Ben, playing with a marble run they have constructed in his Edinburgh flat.  He has the presence of mind to turn on his camera to capture the moment and the moments that follow.  Like Ozu the camera is low, it never moves...we are there, in the flat, kneeling on the floor watching Laura and Ben.

From twelve minutes of children playing Cousins is able to take us on a journey that no other film maker could.

We see the full force of a childs strop in Iran.

We see a young Dane fly to the moon in a stolen 'plane.

We see Pip crushed by the cruelty of Estella in Dickensian England.

We feel the pain and anguish of Renko as her dreams of a happy home are drowned.

We brush tears from our eyes as we ponder whether it is a cat or a dog.

Was my childhood like this?

Is anybody's childhood like this?

That isn't the point.

The point is that cinema has the ability to present us with beauty and truth in a way that no other medium can match.  Children are full of both beauty and truth.  "I want a chocolate muffin." says Ben when Mark would say "Why don't we share a chocolate muffin."  Only one of these statements is pure truth.  The truth is a beautiful thing.  Children can show us that beauty.  Up on the big screen even the most fanciful moments like Elliott and E.T riding a bike across an impossibly perfect full moon are filled with the truth of childhood.

A colder heart would talk of Cousins as a "documentary film maker".

He isn't.

He isn't a film maker at all.

He is a pursuit of truth and beauty.

With this non-story of children in film he has given his audience exactly those things.

Taboor - EIFF 2013

A man lies on a camp bed in a room covered in silver foil.

He has a shock of pure white hair and a beard that can only be described as impressive.

The man stands up and pulls a silver foil jump suit from a hanger on the wall.

After he has dressed in the foil suit he pulls on a layer of beige clothes to hide disguise it.

Finally he puts on a motorcycle helmet and leaves the room.

This is how Iranian science fiction begins.

The man is trying to protect himself from electromagnetic fields...or he may be mad.

He is a pest control agent.

He rides his motorcycle around a city making a series of stops and encountering a variety of different people.

Dialogue is non-existent.

There is no music.

The hum of machinery.

Diegetic sound.

A flicker of voice over.

"Taboor" is unsettling and disquieting.  It has an almost eery quality.  At various points one expects something...more, to happen.  When the man begins to claw the plaster from a wall in pursuit of some pest or other one feels that something terrible lurks behind.  That something more never really materialises, which serves only to heighten the tension and unease.

In one Lynchian moment the man meets a dwarf, undresses in front of him, places a metal wastepaper basket on his head and stands erect while an air gun is fired at him.  When the last shot has been fired the dwarf tends to him.  This isn't the only moment that has the feel of David various points I was reminded of both "Twin Peaks" and "Inland Empire".  Shadows, corridors, a dwarf, awkward encounters, isolation, solitude, quiet...all recurring motifs in the work of Lynch.

In the same week that I had to endure Melanie Phillips telling a nationwide audience that she believed that Iran needed to be "neutralised" it was good to be reminded, again, what a creative and poetic country Iran is.  A film as unique and startling as "Taboor" is not the product of a people or a country who need to be neutralised but who need to be supported and encouraged.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Sofia's Last Ambulance - EIFF 2013

We live, dear readers, here in the United Kingdom at a time when the most right wing government ever to hold office lords over us.

We are the plebs.

A slow erosion of our civil liberties and our public services that started stealthily under "New" Labour between 1997 and 2010 has now accelerated and led us to the point where education, health and the benefits system are on the brink of either full privatisation or complete destruction.

You may think that this doesn't really affect you.

You have your degree, you have a job, you enjoy good health, your family love and support you.

That can all be rendered meaningless or taken from you completely in the blink of an eye.

If you want to see what it would be like to live in a country where health services "enjoy" the sort of funding and care that this government craves then spend 76 minutes in the company of Dr Yordanov, Mila and Plamen as they tend to the sick of Sofia in their dilapidated ambulance.

By the films end you will be left feeling dismayed and grateful in equal measure.

Potholed roads, a criminal lack of equipment, a lack of proper funding, a demotivated workforce and people suffering injuries and disease that are, in large part, the result of social and economic inequality are all presented in a grimly realistic manner.  Each of the central characters are never anything less than completely convincing and utterly compelling.

A fine film and an important one.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Breathe In - 19/6/13 EIFF Opening Night

EIFF 2013 started with a silent sigh and not a big bang with this delicate and nuanced melodrama from Drake Doremus.

Keith (Guy Pearce) and his wife Holly Flax (little joke for all Office fans) welcome English rose and piano protege Sophie (Felicity Jones) into their beautiful home as an exchange student for a semester. Keith is a talented and frustrated musician who has sacrificed his dreams of being a "real" musician and settled for a life in the classroom in order to maintain a lifestyle he doesn't actually want or enjoy.

Slowly, but inevitably, Sophie and Keith fall for each other and when they eventually make sweet music together things, literally, come crashing down.

There is no doubt that Doremus has crafted a visually pleasing film or that Pearce is, again, very good but there is equally no doubt that the whole affair is dreadfully predictable.  One cannot shake the feeling that you've seen it all before...and that you have probably seen it done better before.

Curiously the last film that Jones appeared in that premiered at EIFF was "Albatross"...a film about a young English rose of a student whose life is turned upside down when one of her friends has an affair with her father.  Even more curiously her character in "The Archers" has also been involved in a similar storyline.  Jones is in danger of being typecast in a most peculiar way.

Artistic director and saviour of the EIFF, Chris Fujiwara is to be applauded for avoiding a "blockbuster" for opening night and selecting something with more grace and style but I am confident that over the next ten days I will see more interesting, surprising and entertaining films than this.