Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Glasgow Film Festival News

GFF today announced that Richard Ayoade (above) will be in attendance at the screening of his hugely anticipated new film (his first as director) "Submarine" on Friday 18th February at 20:30.  Also in attendance will be two of the films stars Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige.

With starring roles in everything from "Spinal Tap" to "The Simpsons" Harry Shearer (above) isn't someone you would want to miss and thanks to the GFF you don't have to as he will be in attendance at the screening of his new documentary "The Big Uneasy" which takes a look at the story of Hurricane Katrina and the communities affected by it.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

NEDS - Cineworld - 21/1/11

"Tongs Ya Bass" was the unofficial motto of 1960's Glasgow.  When young gang members from Calton watched the Hammer film "Terror of the Tongs" about the Chinese gangsters of that name it was adopted as the gangs own moniker.  The "Bass" part wasn't, despite what some people will tell you, an abbreviation of bastard but was taken from the Gaelic war cry "aigh bas"...battle and die.

Cumbie, Toi, Fleet, Shamrock and many more provided myriad headlines for tabloid writers and struck fear into the hearts of young men from further afield too.  My own father, no stranger to gang culture in Edinburgh, found himself isolated from his friends and being hunted by a group of Tongs who had decided to visit the capital...the end result was a land speed record from my father who was not known for avoiding a "pagger" or "square go" but the reputation of the Glasgow gangs and their propensity for using "blades" meant running was a much safer option.

Gangs have been part of Glasgow culture since the 1800s but it was in the 1960s with Mod culture and on into the 1970s that they enjoyed their most memorable and terrifying era.  The combination of the classic working class obsessions with fashion and music alongisde the uniquely divided nature of the city and its "hard because they had to be" attitude led to the creation of a gang culture during those two decades that still leaves scars across many communities today.

There has been at least one attempt to cover gang culture from this period already in Gillies MacKinnons flawed "Small Faces" but with "NEDS" director Peter Mullan gets much closer to the truth and the reality of life for many young men growing up in Glasgow during that period and, sadly, for many living there today.  Unlike the gangster chic of the likes of Guy Ritchie or the entire career of Danny Dyer there is no attempt at presenting this life as glamorous or desirable, instead the truth, the brutal truth, of what gangs offer, what drives young men and women to behave in such violent and destructive ways and the toll on the communities they inhabit is laid bare.  What we are given is an, at times, depressing, shocking, hilarious and uncomfortable experience that will resonate long after you leave the cinema.

In "NEDS" Mullan takes us into the life of John McGill (Conor McCarron), a bright, hard working young man who has to contend with a drunken, abusive father and the burden of his elder brothers reputation as one of the top boys in the local gang, the Car-D.  Finishing top of his class and looking forward to life at high school and beyond John has a chance encounter with an older boy that acts as the catalyst for his descent into gang life and that gives the audience its first taste of the random nature of the violence to come.  Threatened by this older boy as he walks home John turns to his big brother for help which arrives in the shape of a beating and humiliation that will scar the boy for a long while to come and which gives John a taste of the power associated with position inside the gang.

At school John is forced to join a lower set due to his brothers reputation but manages to focus on his studies and climb into the top set.  On his way home one day John is confronted by a small group of boys who take his money, threaten him and humiliate him...during this one of the attackers recognises him as the younger brother of one of the most violent boys in the estate and John is welcomed into the body of the kirk.

From this point on John begins his journey into a life of violence, fear and loathing.  Drink, fighting, girls, clothes and music are brewed into an explosive cocktail that allows some terrifying set pieces to take place, most noticably when John finds himself deep inside enemy territory, running for his life and finally taking refuge in a place that proves to be potentially very dangerous...the home of one of his would-be attackers.

In the background lurks the presence of Mullan himself as the drunken father, shouting obscenities, abusing his wife and creating an atmosphere of tension that is palpable inside the cinema itself.  He is a booze soaked, foul mouthed, vicious character who is, I have no doubt, the birthplace of the alpha-male attitude and actions of both John and his brother.  Thankfully Mullan doesn't overstate the case here, NEDS isn't a film that attempts to offer glib answers to these social problems and it is all the better for that.

The young cast are, in the main, untried and untested but they are all magnificent.  Each of them has the right air of desperation, nihilism and aggression required to carry a film like this.  McCarron is particularly impressive in his portrait of a young man drowning.  His physical presence is menacing but it is in his low, rough, Glasgow burr and in his eyes that the real power of his performance lies.  This isn't a young man play-acting, this is a young man living and breathing what he is presenting.

It isn't for nothing that Glasgow "enjoys" a reputation as no mean city, recent research shows that 9 out of 10 of the most violent streets in Scotland are to be found there.  Unemployment is higher, life expectancy is lower.  It is a tough place and, consequently, the people are tough.  It's easy to take the moral high ground over anti-social behaviour of the sort presented here but, in truth, when there is no hope and when life is cheap it is understandable, if not excusable, that people behave this way.  Mullan knows this only too well and in "NEDS" he has managed to create a film that, without ever preaching, conveys that message very clearly.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Black Swan - Cineworld - 21/1/11

Beautiful young woman is turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer, handsome prince discovers beautiful swan, prince falls for wrong swan, beautiful young woman discovers the prince falling for the wrong swan and promptly kills herself soon to be followed by the prince.

Darren Aronofsky isn't a director who is afraid to take chances or to follow his own vision...from the highs of "Pi" and "The Wrestler" to the twisted, dark, arresting "Requiem for a Dream" and then to the universally derided "The Fountain" this is a director who has done it his way.  He makes films that are driven by story and performance...he isn't a CGI freak or a man who requires a budget that could wipe out third world debt to make films that are interesting, disturbing, upsetting, inspiring and different.  With "Black Swan" he has excelled himself, this is a film that combines the weird and wonderful of "Requiem for a Dream" and "Pi" with the glorious storytelling of "The Wrestler".  It is as close to perfect as it may be possible to get.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer who is short on confidence, nervous, uneasy and uncomfortable in her own skin.  The significance of her skin should not be understated as it is the source of much discomfort for her throughout the film.  When she is chosen by company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) for the lead in "Swan Lake" it should be the cue for a new dawn, happiness and fulfillment but is, instead, the starting point of a hysterical dive into a schizophrenic hell that ultimately sees her follow the Swan Queen literally as well as metaphorically.

Nina is haunted by nightmarish visions of her own body changing, driven to the edge of despair and to the heights of ecstasy by her nemesis and friend Lily (Mila Kunis) and thrust into sheer desperation by Thomas and her feelings for him.  It is an unravelling and descent that is truly simply isn't possible to take your eyes off of Portman as she delivers a performance that will stand as a career high in an already impressive career.

Throughout the film Aronofsky makes use of and reference to reflection...mirrors, windows, doppelgangers, portraits, look-a-likes all feature prominently as Nina unravels.  At times it is very difficult to tell what, or who, we are really looking at.  Is what we are seeing real or a mirror image?  Is Nina herself simply a reflection of herself within her own fragmenting subconscious?  On occasion Aronofsky even managed to tap into my own greatest reflection refusing to reflect and acting independently of me.  Barely a scene passes without some sort of mirroring or reflection...the enormous mirrors inside the dance studio, dark windows on the subway, dancers mirroring one anothers movements and, of course, the dark reflection of the Black Swan herself.

Metamorphosis is another key element within the film as Nina transforms, both literally and metaphorically, into the Black Swan.  But it is not only Nina who is shifting shape and transforming; her mother has changed from dancer to mother, Lily is desperately trying to become Nina, former prima ballerina Beth (played superbly by Winona Ryder) is transformed from "little princess" to cripple.  Nobody is who they appear to be and nothing is what it seems to be.

Much of the discussion on "Black Swan" has, naturally, centered on the dance...most importantly on Portmans ability to dance.  I have some experience in this field having appeared on stage with the Kirov and have actually appeared in "Swan Lake".  Admittedly I wasn't dancing and was simply an extra body used to "pad out" certain moments but it's closer than you've come to being a professional bloody dancer!  I don't know how good or bad Portman was but I found the dance scenes to be convincing and beautiful.

I have a very close friend who has never forgiven Aronofsky for "The Fountain" which he described as "...a load of mince".  To that friend I say "Bobby, forgive Aronofsky, forgive him then see the Black Swan and have your faith in him restored".

Friday, 21 January 2011

Season of the Witch - Cineworld - 20/1/11

Did you know that there were Americans fighting in the crusades?

Neither did I.

In this historically accurate...

No, wait.

Let me just check my notes.


In this hysterically inaccurate romp Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman desert the crusades, head for home and end up escorting a young woman accused of being a witch who has brought plague to the land to a castle full of monks who will determine her guilt or innocence.  On the way they pick up a guide in the shape of Combo from "This is England" who has, for reasons I don't really understand, decided to play the part with a New Yoik accent.  En route to the castle of monks they encounter a pack of zombie wolves, hallucinations and a rope bridge that makes the one Indiana Jones has to cross in "Temple of Doom" look like the Golden Gate Bridge.

When they eventually make it to the monkhouse they discover all the monks are dead from plague and, worse, the witch isn't a witch...she's the devil!  Satan!  Beelzebub!  Lucifer!  He who walks backwards!  The beast!  Seriously...he's got horns and wings and everything.  Unable to take care of Nic Cage, Ron Perlman and a pre-pubescent altar boy on his own the devil re-animates the monks and a battle between the living and the dead takes place for no real reason other than it gives everyone the chance to look grim faced while lopping off the heads of undead monks.

Quite clearly this is the greatest film ever made.


Let me check my notes again...


Oh, yes.


Quite clearly this is a load of old tosh.

But, dear, dear reader, it was also gloriously, brilliantly, dementedly, wonderfully, awfully entertaining.  It can't all be Ozu and black and white Polish realist cinema you know.  Occasionally it does you no harm at all to simply sit back and let the pretty pictures entertain you.  "Season of the Witch" is, I think, knowingly camp and fabulously ridiculous...nobody involved would make any claim for "art" or a case for it being a film loaded with hidden meaning; it's a chance for Nicolas Cage to do, well, Nicolas Cage and for everyone else to enjoy getting dressed up and fight monks, devils and zombie wolves.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Glasgow Film Festival

It's back...

The GFF launched its programme for this year and what a programme it is.

With the return of "Fright Fest" (8 horror beauties), "Beyond Bollywood" (taking a look at the best in Indian cinema), a world cinema strand "It's A Wonderful World", independent cinema, Scottish film and much more it promises to be a really memorable festival.

Director Allison Gardner is keen that the festival offers "...something for all tastes" and this year seems set to do exactly that.

Roll on the GFF!

Get Low

This review originally appeared on MyFilms during the 2010 EIFF.  "Get Low" is given a cinema release from 21/1/11.


If I was a film-maker and I was going into see a studio executive with a pitch for a film there are certain things that would make me feel very confident about the meeting ending positively for me;

1) a good script

2) a great story

Those two things should be enough on their own but we all know the executive is looking at the Benjamins and not the Art.

Imagine though if I was able to go into the pitch with one and two as well as;

3) Robert Duvall.

4) Bill Murray.

5) Sissy Spacek

I would bet everything I had on the executive biting my hand off for my good script and great story on the back of a cast like that.

I mean seriously boys and girls we are talking about acting royalty here.

Robert Duvall?

Bill Murray?

Sissy Spacek?

I would crawl naked over broken glass to see a film with even one of those people in it.

To get all three together is just...well, it's just too much.

You could get the three of these people to star in "Avatar" and it would elevate it from ridiculous, pompous, overblown, cynical cash cow, cinema misery to high art.


Let's look at the type of people we are talking about..."The Road", "The Godfather", "The Godfather Part II", "Sling Blade", "Lonesome Dove", "Apocalypse Now", "Ghostbusters", "Lost in Translation", "Rushmore", "The Royal Tenenbaums", "Broken Flowers", "Groundhog Day", "The Straight Story", "Carrie", "Badlands".

What a list.

When you throw in some of the most beautiful cinematography, a sizzling script and a story that practically bleeds honesty and purity of purpose from its heart then you have a film that deserves to be seen by anyone who has even a casual interest in cinema.

This was, without a doubt, one of the best films I have seen...not this year, not at the EIFF, not in the last few years, just one of the best films I have seen. It oozes class. It's a film that will take its place on "favourites" lists of everyone who sees it.

Duvall plays hermit and local legend Felix Bush, a man with no friends, no family and, apparently, no interest in either. When he comes into town to plan his own funeral with a bundle of dollar bills that could make a rich man jump for joy local funeral director Frank Quinn (Murray) grabs the opportunity to arrange the funeral despite knowing that Bush won't make that easy.

Bush wants to arrange his funeral with one difference...he will be in attendance. He wants to hear what everyone has to say about him, to hear the myriad stories and legends that have sprung up around him during his years of self imposed exile. As the plans take shape it becomes clear that something from the past is haunting Bush and that his real purpose in organising his funeral isn't the one he has presented to Quinn.

A touching and totally convincing relationship between Bush and Mattie Darrow (Spacek) lends emotional depth and deeper tones to a film that is already full of emotion and that has been constructed with love and affection by director Aaron Schneider. When the truth comes out it is achingly painful but also uplifting as we see the tortured soul of Bush freed from the shackles of what has been haunting him.

It isn't possible to say enough good things about a film like this.

See it.

Then go and see it again.

Then take a friend to see it.


Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Outcast - Filmhouse - 17/1/11

"The most original horror since "Let the Right One In" screams the poster for "Outcast" me, that is further away from the truth than my declaring myself the best looking man in Scotland.  That is to say...pretty bloody far away from the truth.  I'm not even the best looking man in my flat and I live alone.

Lurking within Colm McCarthys script lies a really novel and interesting gothic horror tale.

All the right parts are present; black magic, ritual, gypsy traveller folk, legend, myth, an unGodly beast, urban backdrop...yet despite all of that "Outcast" never really delivers or convinces.  In part this is to do with the writing, McCarthy appears to think that in order for his Edinburgh setting to be convincing that all of the Scottish characters should end every sentence with "like" or "ken".  The cast appear to be aware of the limitations of the script because at times they appear genuinely uncomfortable in delivering them...James Cosmo in particular seems to know that, at best, the dialect is poorly researched and, at worst, is patronising and a bit daft.

Sadly some of the acting isn't good enough either...I'm well aware that that is an easy thing for someone like me to say, sitting here behind a keyboard without ever having appeared on screen but I don't think I would be alone in thinking that, at times, some of the performances were not much beyond am-dram level.  In particular Hanna Stanbridge is, at times, uncomfortably awful in her attempt at portraying the sort of school of hard knocks girl that Katie Jarvis played so brilliantly in "Fish Tank".  If Stanbridge was the best of those who turned up at the auditions then the state of acting in Scotland is in a perilous condition.

As a counter to the near balsa like performance of Stanbridge was the ever brilliant Kate Dickie who was, again, perfection.  Even during scenes that would have been ludicrous in the hands of lesser talents are played brilliantly by Dickie.  Proof of this comes during a scene when Dickie has to battle through the ether against James Nesbitt...miles apart and attempting to outsmart one another they each sit naked before a naked flame; Nesbitt looks like a middle-aged man pleasuring himself while his wife is in the other room, shuddering, groaning and grunting but Dickie seems to be genuinely in touch with something outside of herself.  It's the perfect example of why she is, without doubt, the finest actress working in Scotland...and possibly the UK.

There are things to enjoy in "Outcast"...the story of a young man being hunted in connection with some dark secret, some of the special effects, the performance of Dickie and the backdrop of a never more sinister Edinburgh the truth is that you are left feeling disappointed and not mesmerised.  A missed opportunity for all concerned.

Friday, 14 January 2011

An Interview with Paul Heaton

When I was sixteen I managed to convince a girl in my class called Emma to go out on a date with me.  I’d adored her from a distance for a long while.  I couldn’t believe it when she agreed to go out with me.  What a date I had line up for to see The Beautiful South at the Playhouse theatre in Edinburgh.  The Beautiful South had only just released their first album “Welcome To...” and they were big news thanks, in part, to their being the new project of Paul Heaton, former lead singer of The Housemartins.  Oh, by the by, I had got good seats too...three rows from the stage.  It was a great gig and I was giddy with excitement at the prospect of the train journey home; surely Emma would be as happy as I was and would reward me for my efforts with a kiss and a cuddle at the back of a deserted carriage.
Now, 22 years later Emma and I are still together and as happy...
No, not really.
The magic of the “South” wasn’t potent enough to see true love bloom...outside of the venue Emma met her big sister who, unbeknown to me, had also attended the gig and the two of them made their way to the station without me and I was left alone.  It’s a bit sad that isn’t it?
I wonder what Paul Heaton would make of this I thought to myself that night back in 1989.  I wondered, too, if he had ever taken a girl to the movies on a date, had he had more success than me in the dark of the back row?
You should’ve known with a name like Emma” says the man who has provided the soundtrack to more moments in my life than almost anyone else “No, I never chose to take a girl to the cinema.  One of my first dates was taking a girl to Sheaf Valley Simming Baths in Sheffield.  I couldn’t swim and, unfortunately, my mum noticed me walking out the door with a towel.  She stopped me from taking trunks or a towel so I had to watch from the public balcony as my “date” slipped off to the other end with another boy.  Not a great start.”
There is something truly comforting about that story but I don’t know what it is...maybe it’s just the knowledge that one of my heroes was as much of a loser as I was when I was a kid?
 There won’t be too many people who aren’t aware of Paul Heatons music, from The Housemartins and their chart bothering hits like “Happy Hour”, “Caravan of Love” and “Me and the Farmer” to the enormous success of The Beautiful South who had more hits than The Beatles, Elvis and Westlife combined...or something.  I wonder if you could have written a song for a film, any film from any time, what film would it be and why?
“Probably Easy Rider. I would've liked to have sat down with someone like Chip Taylor and say 'let's give this rebellion some direction'. So much of 50's and 60's White America was rebellion against short hair or Mom and Dad or soft music or whatever meaningless argument they'd had with their girlfriends that week. 1969 was a time when North American white rebellion was on the verge of being politicised. What America got was the banal words to 'Born to be Wild'. Another narcissists anthem.”
Sticking with the idea of music for films let’s start thinking about the soundtrack for “Heato: From the Beautiful North to the Beautiful South” which is going to be a gritty tale of one young Northerners rise to stardom.  Who would play the role of Heaton and what music would you choose for the opening and closing scenes?
“I would probably like Tom Courtenay to play me.  I think he could do my voice.  Or Rob Brydon.  As for the music; Scene 1] Courtenay is looking up and down the shelves of a local off licence comparing can prices to alcohol volume. In the background Karine Polwart's Holy Moses plays quietly. As Courtenay steps out into the dazzling Hull sunshine and opens his first can, Karine's voice bellows out 'Here's a thing you cannot do. He did it anyway just to prove it was not true'. 

Last scene] As the Biopic is in reverse, this features Heaton as a 6 year old boy on his back, on a park's merryground. Facing the stars and eventually reaching out to them he sings along to Laura Cantrell's 'Oh so many years'. I chose the latter because in the film, when referring to the different loves of his life, he constantly says 'I don't think I've ever loved anybody like I've loved this earth'. The former because it sets the scene.”

That answer provides the answer to the question “What’s the difference between Paul Heaton and me, I mean his first “date” ended in disaster and embarrassment just like mine so what’s he got that I haven’t?”  Well, clearly, he’s got the ability to give an answer like that to a, lets be honest, fairly bland question.  Bit frustrating that...I liked it better when we were on the common ground of adolescent loser.
I see you as a songwriter who has a particularly British view of things, not in any parochial sense, but your songs still manage to have a universal appeal.  Are there any British films or directors that you particularly enjoy?
“Paddy Considine I like and, of course, Shane Meadows.  Further back I like John Schlesinger.  I’m not so sure if I have a particularly British view of things.  I just look out my window and write what I see as opposed to looking through some “Transatlantic Kaleidoscope”
Football has always been a big part of your life and it’s always been a popular backdrop for films.  Are there any football films that you enjoy and, as an aside, what would make you happier; the Blades in the Premier League or Wednesday going bust?
“As a genre I don’t think it really works.  Neither of those things would make me happy.  I don’t like the sort of supporters that the Premier League attracts and if the Piggies went bust who we going to hate?  Rotherham?  Barnsely?  Forget it.  Rivalry, no matter how bitter or divisive is the reason your a supporter of that team”
If I could take you back to the day you first signed for Go! Discs and offered you a professional contract for Sheffield United at the same time which would you have chosen?
“Go! Discs.  I would never have had the discipline to play professional football.”
If Dante is right and there is a Hell and at the bottom of it is poor old Judas trapped in ice for all eternity which film would you choose to play on a loop to further his misery?
“I think probably one of those awful 'Invader as Victim' films that Hollywood made after the Vietnam war. Full Jacket Potato, A bag of crisps now, Veggieburger Hill, Born on the 1st of April, The Beer Hunter. I've never seen such a crude, pathetic, self pitying load of shite in all my life.”
If I were to create a film festival that was going to be curated in the same way as the “Meltdown” music festival what films would you choose?
“They’re not going to ask someone like me to curate anything like Meltdown are they?  At Meltdown I’d pick the “Free Willy” trilogy and at your alternative film festival I’d probably pick “Il Postino”, “The Killing of Fred Hampton” and a John Pilger documentary.”
You have been a big influence in my life and one of the things your responsible for is introducing me to gospel music.  I’d always listened to soul, because my mum and dad were both Mods in the 1960’s, but I’d never heard gospel until I started listening to The Housemartins.  Who were the influences on you as a young man?
“Strummer, Rotten, Richard Brewis (English teacher), Alfred Wirth (a German friend) and Al Green.  Oh, and me mum and dad”
Now we’re back on common ground Heaton and mum and dad are the biggest influence on my life, I had an English teacher who was just so significant (Dave Ewing) and you could substitute Heaton and Morrissey for Strummer and Rotten.  I didn’t have a German friend though...which is a shame.
I remember discovering the motif “Take Jesus, Take Marx, Take Hope” on the inner sleeve of, I think, “The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death” album.  I didn’t know what that meant and so it started me thinking and investigating.  Really, I think, it was the start of my developing an interest in politics and it informed my political stance.  As a socialist I wonder how you feel now about the “New Labour” government/experiment and what’s happened to the Left in Britain?
“One of the things I am most proud of is having the vision to not vote Labour in 1997 and vote Socialist Labour. It was SO obvious when people were saying let's just get back into power and then we'll go to the left. From the 80's I was aware of the Militant Tendency in the Labour Party. They were frighteningly dull but nowhere near as undemocratic and shifty as the lot who turned up in the mid 90's. New Labour are a free market, deregulating bunch of libertarian assassins. The left need to decide what it is to be left in Britain and then challenge or leave behind the afore mentioned doctrine. It needs almost dictatorial socialism of the party first and then it needs to present that to the country fairly and squarely. Unfortunately the Miliband Tendency, that is the 3rd choice in One Party State Britain, has a pretty firm stranglehold on any debate.”
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Paul Heaton has been one of the most significant influences on my life; music, politics and even fashion have all been touched by the hand of Heato!  Listening to what he has to say about films, music, football and politics I’m sure it’s not difficult to see why...and he was right; I should have known with a name like Emma.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Next Three Days - Cineworld, Edinburgh - 13/1/11

Russell Crowe is John Brennan.

John is a pretty nice guy.

He teaches at a community college.

John is married to Laura...she is beautiful and has a good job but doesn't get along with her boss.

John and Laura have a lovely little boy called Luke.

One day the police come to John and Laura's home and arrest Laura for killing her boss with a fire extinguisher.

Laura goes to prison.

When John takes Luke to visit Laura in prison Luke will not kiss Laura.

Laura wonders "Will he ever kiss me again?"

John goes a bit mental and decides that because his wife is innocent (he knows this, he just does) that he will help her to escape.

John goes to see Liam Neeson.

Liam Neeson is a man who has escaped from prison and written books about it.

Liam Neeson has a scar.

John asks Liam Neeson about how he escaped and foolishly reveals his true agenda.

Liam Neeson tells John everything he needs to know about escaping from prison.

John helps Laura to escape from prison and they go to Venezuela with Luke.

Luke kisses Laura.

Back in America the police start to think Laura might have been innocent.

In the cinema an audience member is so enraged by how predictable, formulaic and just plain awful this film is that he sets fire to the screen, breaks into the projection room, burns the master copy of the film, drives to every other cinema in the country that is showing it and burns their copies, kidnaps Russell Crowe (you don't need to know how) and holds him for ransom...he threatens to keep Russell captive unless the writer, director and studio executive who green lit this project promise never, ever to make another film.

Sadly the most exciting bit of this review is the last paragraph and it is the only bit of the review that isn't true...except for the bit about "The Next Three Days" being predictable, formulaic and just plain awful.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

An Interview with Rona Mark

Rona Mark is a director.
Rona Mark is a writer.
Rona Mark writes scripts and directs films.
Rona Mark is a writer/director.
Rona Mark has made two feature films.
Rona Mark wrote and directed “Strange Girls”
Rona Mark wrote and directed “The Crab”
You have probably never heard of Rona Mark.
It is not your fault that you have never heard of Rona Mark.
Rona Mark, however, really deserves for you to see her films and to know her name.
Rona Mark.
People often say that they would like to see something “different”, something “new”, something “clever” or something that is worth their time and money.  The strange thing is that despite their being a lot of people who want those things the film industry is reluctant to give it to them.  Rather than give us what they want though they give us what we don’t want safe in the knowledge that enough of us will go and see it anyway.  This is the only explanation for things like “Meet the Parents: Little Fockers” and, controversially, “Inception”.
Her first film “Strange Girls” offered a script and a vision that was, very clearly, her own.  It wasn’t like anything else that screened during the 2008 EIFF.  It was dark (telling the tale of two murderous twin girls), it was funny and it was, really, strange.  It was the sort of film that really connected with the people who saw it (and a lot of people did) and yet three years later we are no closer to seeing it in the local multiplex or on DVD.

Last year Mark brought “The Crab” to the EIFF and while it was still dark, funny and strange it also represented a giant leap forward in technical terms.  It features a performance from Guy Whitney, as the eponymous “Crab”, that is brilliantly, gloriously, defiantly scabrous.  The character, “Levi”, is hideously but fabulously unpleasant.  With a script that is full of rage and blistering attacks on all manner of targets (not all of them justified) it is the sort of film that rewards you in so many ways.
A quick look at the trailer reveals exactly how terrible a human being Levi is; immoral, angry, unpleasnt, profane and he has some bad qualities too.  So it seemed obvious to ask where in the world does Levi come from?

“Largely, of course, he comes from my brain...Levi is me at my nasty, male alter-ego worst, mixed in with 20% of an old boyfriend and 20% of a fantasy character and maybe 5% Grady Stiles who was the lobster boy.  The 20% that was the old boyfriend was the part of Levi who refuses to put citations into his final dissertation and so never got his least that’s what he says and I think it’s probably true”
Levi suffers from ectrodactyly and his physical disability is used by him as a means to justify some awful behaviour; womanising, drunkeness, drug abuse...the list is almost endless.  Despite that his brutal honesty and refusal to “play the game” is inspiring and a cause for celebration.  That Mark has been able to create a character who is so vulgar and yet so beautiful is testament to her talents as a writer.
Levi is also convinced of his own brilliance and is sure that it’s everyone elses fault that this hasn’t been recognised.  Of course, his refusal to insert citations in his dissertation ensures that he cannot be recognised and I wonder if that is a defence mechanism on his part, a means to ensure that he can’t be criticised?

“That’s definitely true and it’s that part of him that sees the difference between us because I went ahead and finished my film (Strange Girls) and put it out there.  I paid a high price for that, I took a lot of beating, emotionally, for that film...people here (Edinburgh) really seemed to appreciate it but I got a lot of rejection, a lot of stupid reviews, people don’t get it.  I mortgaged my life away to make that film, I’m still paying for it.  It’s a good film, you know, it’s not perfect but it’s a good film that doesn’t have distribution yet.  You put so much into something and then it goes nowhere...and I’m pissed.  Everyone I know has kids and property, I’ve made sacrifices to make films.”
At this point there is laughter but you get the sense that there is a part of her that really does feel angry that something that she has invested so much in has been ignored while films that have so much less emotional investment are given so much attention.  Of course there are many examples of people creating work that is filled with their own drive and ambition that doesn’t equate to art (“The Room” anyone?) but in this case we are talking about someone who is creating films that have value and meaning.
Both “Strange Girls” and “The Crab” feature characters who have a genetic condition that sets them apart from the “herd”. The attraction for most of us to these conditions is the opportunity it affords us to be shamed voyeurs, with our necks distended looking at the freaks. Is there something about the “otherness’ of these conditions that attracts you?
“Well, I guess I feel like a freak.  A great way to dramatise that feeling is to make it physical in some way.  I think that’s the connection between both of the films.  That feeling of being “different” but without having anything to mark it out.”
Something that struck me about both films was the shift in that physical manifestation of the “Strange Girls” the condition of twins is something quite common, most of us know twins or have met twins so there is a connection there but in “The Crab” Levis condition isn’t all that common, indeed it is a much more violent demonstration of being an outsider.  Was that purposeful?  Has there been some emotional journey you have gone on that has made you feel more of a “freak”?
“Yeah, like I said, the production of “Strange Girls” was brutal.  It was a real struggle and it left me broken and in pieces.  I didn’t ever expect it to make money or anything like that but I thought it might open doors and make it easier to make films...but it didn’t do shit for me.  That, I think, is the base of it.  This is the professional side of my personal failures.  There are others but I’m not going to get into that.”
If “Strange Girls” didn’t open those doors and make things easier do you think that “The Crab” will?  
“I don’t.  I don’t.  Here’s the thing, I got a great response to the film in Edinburgh but I don’t think an American audience is going to respond in the same way.  That’s just a feeling I get.  It’s all about America in a way...they have a kind of mindset about how films should be, how they work out.  I wouldn’t say that they are any more or less sophisticated because I don’t think that’s true.  Part of the problem is that Levi doesn’t learn anything in the film and when things don’t fit into a certain paradigm for American audiences they don’t like that.  I think there will be a lot of people who will dig it but the question is can I get it to them?  Can I get it through festival people, the people who are programming so that the people who would “get it” can see it.  It didn’t happen with “Strange Girls” so I’m sceptical that it will happen with this.”
I have spent a lot of time in the States and I find the idea that American audiences are less sophisticated as offensive as Rona clearly does.  When I am in America I find a lot of intelligent, urbane, sophisticated and interesting people...who would have thought it.  The problem clearly lies at the door of the people who decide what we get to see.  That’s a difficult thing to cope with as a viewer...heaven knows how miserable it must make the artist.
“It’s a hard film (The Crab) to market, it’s not a straight up horror film, it’s too “low brow” for the indie thing, it doesn’t have anyone famous so those are all things that close doors on us.”
One of the things that is most compelling about “The Crab” and about Levi is that he is the sort of person that a lot of men, I think, wish they could be.  He says and does exactly what he wants to, he has a boorish charm that means he is never short of female company, he is witty and intelligent as well as caustic and angry.  At the risk of being sexist I wonder how a female writer creates such an, apparently, alien character?
“A friend once told me I had a very androgynous brain.  I think that Levi gives expression to that and also to my own anger.  The thing is though that women are not allowed to be angry.  If you’re a woman and you are angry then you are somehow less of a woman.  I always thought that if I was thinking these things then other women must be thinking them too.  Unlike Levi I don’t want to destroy myself physically but on screen it has to be that way...when I am angry or depressed I sit at home crying but who wants to watch that?”
The person I am reminded of as I sit in Rona Marks company is Patti Smith.  Rona, like Patti, is, in person, charming, funny, intelligent and passionate.  There is also, however, a very definite passion, fire and anger burning inside of her that is tangible in her work but isn’t off putting. 
“I’m sorry if this has been grim” she says “But the thing I’m most proud of is that despite my films not having distribution and despite the struggles I’m still doing it, you know?”
I do know and I’m really glad that she is.  Hopefully, one day, you will be too.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Y Tu Mama Tambien - DVD - 10/1/11








More sex than you could shake a stick at.

No, really...there is a lot of sex!

Alfonso Cuaron wrote and directed this brilliantly raunchy coming of age tale meets sex as political methaphor and introduced Western audiences to Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal.  It's a fairly potent calling card and given that Cuaron went straight from this to directing the much less raunchy "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" it certainly seemed to work for him.

"Y Tu Mama Tambien" isn't a film that you would comfortably watch with your mum and dad, unless your mum and dad are Janice Dickinson and Peter Stringfellow, but it is a film that is about much more than the sex.  Despite the graphic nature of the sex scenes it is never, as Mary Whitehouse would say, unnecessary, but is, instead, always absolutely essential.

Luna and Bernal are both fabulous as the adolescent, sex crazed, mixed up, muddled up, shook up boys who find themselves enjoying the company of the mature Luisa (Maribel Verdu) on a road trip to a mythical beach.  As she seduces both boys it soon becomes clear that something isn't quite right with Luisa and that despite the carnal rewards afforded them the boys may well have been better off without her.

A film that fizzes, whooshes and pops with all the energy of a teenage boy on speed.  If that's your sort of thing then you'll adore this...if that sounds like your idea of hell probably best to avoid!

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Rudo y Cursi - DVD - 8/1/11

"A while back a friend told me that the most beautiful game ever invented began with the severed head of a soldier.  And his enemy's brutal kick, the first goal ever - unofficially - scored, as the head flew between two trees.  "Dreadful" I said, "That depends" said my friend, "Dreadful for the goalkeeper but for the striker, twas glorious!"
Any film that starts with such a searing insight into what lies at the heart of the "beautiful game" and in the heart of most supporters must be high on the list of football films to see before you die.
The eponymous Rudo and Cursi are brothers, whose real names are Beto and Tato, who play football in a rural league on the sort of pitches that would make the red gravel graveyards many of us played on look like the San Siro.  Rudo (slang for hard) is the elder brother who plays in goal while Cursi (pretentious) is the flamboyant striker whose real passion is singing.  A chance encounter with a football agent, the Baton, who tells the brothers that while he likes them both he can only take one with him to Mexico City.  To decide which brother will take the chance they decide to face off with a penalty.  Rudo tells his brother to put it to the right and Cursi obliges because he really doesn't care...sadly for both Cursi puts it to his own right and not his brothers and so it is he who ends up in Mexico City, signed to Amaranto and heading for the big time.

A few months later Rudo is given the chance by the Baton to sign for second division side Nopaleros and is reunited with his brother.  At the same time Cursi begins to increasingly resemble David Beckham...highlights in the hair, outrageous clothing and a beautiful celebrity girlfriend Maya (played by the outrageously glamorous Jessica Mas).  With the goals flowing and money in the bank everything looks rosy for him, so much so that he is also able to pursue his dreams of being a singing sensation (his singing wouldn't be out of place coming from one of the more deranged X-Factor auditionees!) and he decides to propose to Maya.  Rudo has managed to take his team into the top flight and is chasing the shut-out record but has also managed to develop a serious gambling addiction which has plunged him into dangerous levels of debt.  With the mob leaning on him for repayment of loans Rudo is in serious danger of having his life ended prematurely.
Cursi meanwhile is suffering from a major dip in form, thanks in large part to his celebrity lifestyle and as the fans turn on him, he is dropped to the bench and he finds out that Maya has moved on to the latest soccer sensation...leaving him alone and desperate.  Salvation for both men comes in the shape of their agent who tells Rudo that he will pay off his gambling debts if he makes sure that his team lose their next match...which just happens to be against Cursi and his side!  The stage is set for Rudo to save his brothers career, pay off his debts and ensure that everyone lives happily ever after...but this isn't "The Great Escape" and this isn't Hollywood so a happy ending doesn't arrive in the way you would expect.

"Rudo y Cursi" is a terrific look at the sort of issues we all suspect might lurk in the background of professional football and that occasionally slip onto the front pages of the newspapers but it's also a film that has something to say about family, friendship, loyalty and the sort of poverty that forces many young men in the developing world to see sport as the only way out for them and their families.  With great performances from Diego Luna (Cursi) and Gael Garcia Bernal (Rudo) who many of you may have seen in "Y Tu Mama Tambien" which was a big hit a few years back as well as some very realistic football and footballing politics this is a comedy-sports-drama that really deserves to be seen by football fans everywhere.

Friday, 7 January 2011

An Interview With Mark Collicott

At the GFF in 2010 I decided to catch “A Congregation of Ghosts” only because it was the last film role of Edward Woodward.  I didn’t know anything about the film or its director Mark Collicott.  I didn’t have any expectations and I certainly didn’t know that I was going to see a film that would leave me absolutely breathless by its end.  What I saw was a beautiful, tender, moving and brilliantly crafted ghost story that wasn’t a ghost story...a film that in a perfect world would have catapulted director Mark Collicott into the public conscious.  The fact that we are a year on and very few people have seen the film is a comment only on a world that continues to mistake a big budget and special effects for art.  Make no mistake “A Congregation of Ghosts” is a genuinely brilliant film and is one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.
“It’s a thoughtful and thought provoking story” is how Collicott describes his films and he is right.  Telling the true story of Reverend Frederick Densham, a pious minister who took up post in the small Cornish village of Warleggan in 1932 and proceeded to upset and alienate the bulk of his congregation and who ultimately preached his sermons, faithfully, to rows and rows of empty pews which, in the film, he fills with haunting scarecrow figures.  Ostracised by his community Densham died a lonely and tortured figure in 1953.  The film intertwines the life of Densham with the lives of a young couple who move into his home and who slowly fall under the spell of the old minister.  Thoughtful and thought provoking is exactly what this is.
“It’s not a blood and guts movie, Danny Dyer doesn’t pop up in a gunfight at any point.  It’s an intelligent British film, driven by a great story and featuring some great acting.  It’s also a serious film which isn’t all that common...when you look at something like “Sherlock Holmes” or “Burke and Hare” they’re played for laughs but “A Congregation of Ghosts” isn’t.”
It is sad that a British film driven by story can’t find distribution or an audience and yet something like “Pimp” can get a cinema release and, no doubt, pride of place in the DVD section of HMV.  What’s wrong with the film industry in Britain?  “There is interest from various European countries, which may seem strange, but I think that’s because of where it is set...the picturesque background, the Englishness of it may well be attractive to a foreign audience” says Collicott.  What struck me most about the film was that it bore a striking resemblance to the work of Powell and Pressburger, particularly to “A Matter of Life and Death”.  “You’re exactly right, I think that this film, while it may not be on that level, is certainly very true to the likes of “Black Narcissus”, “A Matter of Life and Death” and maybe even “Peeping Tom”.  The film captures the period really well I think and that may be why there is a similarity to the feel of Powell and Pressburger.”
Collicott himself has a background in photography including a spell working on the New Musical Express.  Looking at the film it would appear that that has influenced your style as a film-maker.  There are several moments when what is on screen could pass for a photographic image.  Has your background influenced your approach or am I reading too much into things?  “I also worked in advertising at Saatchi and Saatchi and I do think that I try to work in a very visual way.  Because of my background I think I try to direct the actors and not the action which is what helped Edward to give the performance he did.  I guess that my background aids the process of making a film.”
“Despite coming from the area where Densham lived I wasn’t aware of his story until a few years ago when a friend of mine who lived on Bodmin Moor told me about it.  I thought it was an amazing story.  The idea that this man, Densham, could live the life he did; working as a missionary in India, being inspired by Gandhi, then ending his life completely alone and ignored by his congregation and having met people like John Betjeman and Daphne du Maurier, who wrote about him, it was just incredible to me.”
The film features an incredible performance from Edward Woodward, a fine actor who never really got the roles he deserved.  Best known for “The Wicker Man” in which he plays another pious, God-fearing man cast adrift in a community who have anything but his best interests at heart this performance acts as a fitting tribute to his talent.

“Edward had a memorial service after his passing and at that the last clip they showed was from “A Congregation of Ghosts” and that was very emotional for me.  With the British film industry in the doldrums Edward went to the States where he was very successful...he won Golden Globes and Emmys.  The workload, I think, began to take its toll on his health and that might be why he never became a “big” name in movies.  He is a brilliant actor and I think that this performance will remind people of that.”
What Mark Collicott has crafted is a very beautiful film and yet distribution remains elusive.  If it were me I would throw my toys out of the pram and head off to a dark room to cry about it.  Thankfully he has other projects already underway and with a little luck other people will see “A Congregation of Ghosts” and other people will understand that in Mark Collicott the British film industry has a director who wants to deliver films and stories not “product”.
“It’s very hard to get distribution in cinemas but I stand by the film.  Maybe we should have had Danny Dyer and blood and guts but that isn’t what I wanted to do.  I wanted to make a film that would mean something to people but it seems that people are frightened to take a risk.  I’m not downhearted and it hasn’t put me off in anyway.”  That’s something we should all be grateful for.

Abel - Filmhouse - 7/1/11

Much was made about the performances of Chloe Moretz, Elle Fanning, Codie Smits McPhee and other young actors in big budget Hollywood movies last year...rightly so as they gave fine, fine performances in, at times, very challenging films.  However, the performance of Christopher Ruiz-Esparza will, in all likelihood, pass by without a mention which is a crime as he is easily the match of his English language peers.  Playing the eponymous "Abel" he is totally convincing as the young boy who returns home a mute after two years in a psychiatric hospital, two years that coincide with the disappearance of his drunken father.  Upon returning home he decides to become the patriarch in the home; chastising his siblings Paul and Selene, admonishing his mother (who he now believes to be his wife), signing report cards, grilling boyfriends and more.

There are many laughs to be had from this scenario and first time director Diego Luna isn't afraid to deliver them but he never takes the easy option.  What I mean is that in the hands of some Hollywood hack this would be a gross out comedy with the "joke" being incest but Luna instead delivers something warmer, more natural, more honest and more convincing.  Set in a run down Mexican village where poverty is very real there is a gritty realism at play here too and Luna has done a wonderful job in marrying the humour and the reality.

When the families real father, Anselmo, returns the scene is set for things to return to "normal" but instead Abel asserts his new found authority and instead of an airbrushed happy families ending we are plunged into a world where ugly confrontation looms large.  When that confrontation eventually arrives it leads to the lives of all the central players returning to where they had been at the films start; Abel is back in hospital and mute, his mother is at home raising two children and trying to support them, his father returns to his mistress.  Despite the laughs there is an air of hopelessness at the films end.

At its heart "Abel" is really a film about fathers.  That young Abel makes a better fist of being the man about the house than his errant father says much about a world where it isn't uncommon to see young men fathering myriad children but being a father to none of them.  Through a childs eyes we also see what really makes a "relationship" work; being there and being consistent.  It is this ability of a child to make a better job of being an adult that elevates "Abel" from being a comedy drama and into the position of being a social manifesto.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

127 Hours - Cineworld, Edinburgh - 5/1/11

For those who don't know...

Aron Ralston was a 28 year old adrenalin junkie who, in 2003, decided to head off to Moab, Utah, for a spot of canyoneering.  During that trip he became trapped in a canyon when a rock fell against his right arm.  127 hours later he was free...but only after using his penknife to cut off the trapped arm.

127 hours.

Five days.



Without food or water.


In pain.

What would you do to get yourself out of a situation like that?

Would you be able to break your own arm and then hack through the skin, muscle and tissue in order to set yourself free?

I don't think I would.

I think I would have given up the ghost and accepted my fate.

That Ralston didn't says as much about his strength of character as his foolish choices that led to his predicament do about the type of person he was previously...selfish and, one could argue, more than a little stupid.

Director Danny Boyle manages to make good use of several familiar motifs from his other works in telling the tale of one man in a hole.  Water, hallucination, split screen are all employed to allow Boyle to create something universal and inspiring out of source material that could, quite easily, be described as confined and horrific.

James Franco plays Ralston and, thanks to the video messages that he recorded during his ordeal, we get an accurate portrait of the man.  More importantly though Franco manages to take us deep inside the mind of the man...the fear, frustration and fatal nature of the situation is all disquietingly real.  It's a terrific performance from an actor who, until now, has been best known as the son of the Green Goblin in the Spiderman franchise.

Much of the discussion around "127 Hours" centres around "that" scene.  Tales of people running screaming and shrieking from the cinema are, I think, the work of over-eager publicists; the same sort of people who billed "Slumdog Millionaire" as the "feel good movie of the year".  The scene is bloody and achingly real but it isn't something that would look out of place in an episode of "Casualty"!

A quieter and more intimate film than "Slumdog" this is, nevertheless, classic Danny Boyle; awkward young men who find themselves in difficult and uncomfortable situations but who ultimately find some sort of redemption or's there in "Shallow Grave", it's there in "Trainspotting" and "The Beach" and again in "Slumdog".  This time the isolation of the central player is reflected in his physical surroundings as well as in his mental and emotional state.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Collapse - 4/1/11

A horror film unlike any other.

No ghosts, no blood, no guts, no zombies, no vampires, no serial killers...

Well, there are the ghosts of those who have warned us.

There is the bloodshed to come.

The guts on display are of the courage type.

Zombies and vampires are killers that none of us really believe in but there are other unbelievable sources of death on show here.

Serial killers?  Our governments.

This is  82 minutes in the company of Michael Ruppert; former LAPD officer turned peak oil theorist.  Described as "batshit insane" by some and dismissed as a prophet of doom by others what isn't in question is that Ruppert sees an unavoidable future for mankind; and it isn't pretty.

Peak oil theory is the theory that at some point, a point we may well have passed, the amount of oil we can produce will fall into terminal decline...when one considers that everything from our toothpaste to our toothbrush is made from oil, that the food in our supermarkets gets there thanks to oil and is grown with pesticides made from oil then the idea of a world without enough oil is a frightening one.

At times during Rupperts incredible monologue I felt genuinely fearful.  My stomach was churning and my own consumerism made me sick.  As his initial rage and prophecies of doom subside they are replaced by an even more terrifying onscreen collapse from Ruppert...a man clearly burdened by what he perceives to be more than just an inconvenient truth.  There are, of course, counter-arguments to what Ruppert and the other peak oilers say but what isn't up for debate is the power of "Collapse" to invoke terror into the viewer.

Monday, 3 January 2011

2011 Preview - 3/1/11

I've received one or two requests for a "heads up" on what lies ahead this year.

As I'm not a "real" journalist and I don't read the film magazines for fear of being influenced by the writings or others I'm not really in the loop...thankfully The Guardians Peter Bradshaw has listed the nine films he is most excited about for 2011.

His list can be read here.

Of the films he mentions I am keen to catch "127 Hours" this week; gruelling and gruesome it may well but I do want to see it.

"True Grit" is receiving a lot of positive press and is being talked about for an Oscar nod or two.

"Black Swan" is the one I am most excited about as I love Natalie Portman and Aronofsky always delivers something...unexpected.

Others to look out for include; "Biutiful" which is director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritus first Spanish language film since his two English language features (21 Grammes and Babel).  Starring Javier Bardem it looks like it will be a hard hitting and powerful movie.

Another Spanish language feature arrives in the shape of Diego Lunas directorial debut "Abel" and it also promises to be powerful and engaging stuff.

An interesting documentary "Waiting For Superman" about the failings of the American education system should prove depressingly interesting!

Most of these arrive early this year, many this month so it promises to be a good start to the year.  As ever though, I suspect that the real treasures will be found outside of the multiplex.

Lord, Save Us From Your Followers - DVD - 3/1/11


Christian film-maker Dan Merchant sets out to discover why it is that people who claim to be "Christians" seem not to be particularly Christ-like.

He makes a compelling case for greater understanding between people of faith, people of different faiths and people of no faith.  There are few people (Jew, Christian, Muslim, Atheist and more) who would not agree that being "like" the Christ of the New Testament isn't a good idea.  Why more people don't do that, particularly those who are happy to loudly proclaim pieces of the Christian message to suit there own political, moral and philosophical positions, is a mystery and not one that Merchant is able to answer.

There are plenty of laughs here and much to think would be an interesting evening to watch it back-to-back with Bill Mahers "Religulous".