Comrades

There was a possibility that a film about the Tolpuddle Martyrs would have me flashing back to Standard Grade History (thankfully, no cholera was involved). But Bill Douglas’ final film, made in 1986, is engrossing and fascinating, if rather over-long to be watched in the uncomfortable seating of the Filmhouse’s Screen 2.

There’s a slightly stylised structure to the story, framed by the recurring appearance of future Taggart actor Alex Norton in a series of roles around pre-cinematic visual entertainment – lantern shows, shadow puppets, etc. But – partly because I’m a geek and I love that sort of thing – it never feels like it’s being too clever

Great ensemble cast (inc. Imelda Staunton as the wife of George Loveless, and Keith Allen when he was still charismatic and intense, instead of a complete ham) and some truly random cameos (inc. Barbara Windsor, adding a distinctly Carry On air to her scenes, but also Vanessa Redgrave and Edward Fox in the latter half of the film.)

It’s clearly a heartfelt political film, which could be problematic even if you agree with the sentiment – the politics are very explicitly stated. Coupled with the slightly stylised storytelling (particularly in the later scenes in Australia, where the characters are in different places and the story becomes disjointed), the film could collapse under it’s own weight. But it’s so confident in itself that you get used to the eccentricities, and it’s grounded in the strong ensemble performances.

Nevermore!

The Raven has to be the apotheosis of the crazy eyeball of gothic, featuring as it does Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff (not to mention an absurdly young Jack Nicholson). It’s probably my favourite of the Corman Poe adaptations.

Not that it bears much relation to Poe’s poem. There’s a raven, obviously, and a woman called Lenore, and that’s about it. Instead, it’s a wonderfully daft story about feuding sorcerers, with the three stars (and supporting cast) overacting their socks off and, one hopes, having a ball.

Another wildly inaccurate poster:

The Raven poster

Nevermore!

Moon

Would it look like I was skiving if I said I didn’t want to review Moon because I know I’ll spoiler it, and it’s another film where the less you know going in the better? Probably, but trust me, it’s true.

I was worried, going in, that Moon would fall into the irritating pseudo-philosophical traps that ‘serious’ science fiction films are susceptible to – the impenetrable ending of 2001, or the wibbly nonsense at the end of the otherwise great Sunshine. It doesn’t – it has shades of that at first, but twists it the other way, and ends up with a really solid science fiction conceit.

The film is built around Sam Rockwell, who is fantastic as a lunar miner coming to the end of his three-year contract when [spoilery stuff] starts to happen. He’s funny and human, and maintains our sympathy with hardly any supporting cast – the bulk of the film is him alone. It’s great casting – it’s the sort of role that someone like Tom Cruise might claim and then screw up with overacting, because what actor doesn’t want all the screentime to himself? There is support from the obligatory robot, voiced by Kevin Spacey and featuring a limited range of smiley faces to indicate suitable moods. (The film neatly subverts expectations about said robot by [more spoilery stuff]) But seriously, would you program your robot to sound like Kevin Spacey? I’d choose, like, Roger Livesey or someone – nothing bad ever sounded like that…

I can’t think of anything original to say about the technical side of the film – it’s well made, looks good, etc – actually it’s got something of the aesthetic that I want for my main sci-fi script – sci-fi without being either overly sleek or overly gloomy. I was hoping to avoid mentioning that Moon‘s (first-time feature) director Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son, but apparently there’s a law against that. Hey, at least I didn’t put it in the title, and I gave him his own name, too. It’s a shame, really, because it’s a great film, and the guy deserves to be seen on his own terms.

(Moon is, heh, stellar.) (Sorry.)

Morbid Afternoon

An afternoon of death and comedy, featuring corpses that don’t fit in coffins, suicidal furries, numerous ill-fated rabbits, and Hitler at the 1948 Olympics.

Elkland

A darkly comic drama about a man returning home after his father’s death. Very funny, very Swedish (so I’m stereotyping, but it’s Bergmanesque, if you squint), very short (barely an hour), and quite touching. Also, there’s an elk called Holger.

(Screened with a fairly arbitrarily chosen short film, Roma, that would have worked better alongside Sin Nombre. Doesn’t change my opinion of short films, but there are some lovely sequences of the workings of a soap and detergent factory.)

McLaren Animation 1

A decent selection, the bulk of which seemed to be from the National Film and Television School. Highlights include Yellow Belly End (rotoscoped in a minimalist style, featuring people in animal costumes throwing themself off a cliff, and the canary who records each one in a little notebook – a page for dogs, a page for cats, several pages for lemmings…) and Goodbye Mr Pink (a mix of live action and large-scale stop-motion, with a girl coming to terms with the death of her rabbit and her brother attempting an autopsy).

I also liked Photograph Of Jesus, which animates the odder enquiries made to an image archive with cut-out photographs, including the aforementioned Hitler at the 1948 London Olympics. It’s a little reminiscent of some of the enquiries I’ve fielded at work…

Quite liked Today Only: liked the style, but it kind of lost me at the naked fairies (not because they were naked, just that it was a random moment too far)

The Intruder

A very different film from Corman’s crowd-pleasing Poe adaptations, The Intruder is a sharp dissection of racism in the American South at the time of desegregation. Political commentary disguised as exploitation film, it plays very differently to a modern audience – particularly in Britain – than it would have in 1962, when it barely found an audience at all.

The Intruder: Still from title sequence

William Shatner (four years before Trek) plays Adam Cramer, a slick bastard in a white suit who arrives in the small town of Caxton on the eve of integration, charming the women and stirring up racial hatred. As the hatred spirals into violence, Cramer finds himself loosing control of the situation he created, digging deeper holes to extricate himself and eventually exposed by the man he cuckolded.

Corman’s characteristic wit is there in the sharp portraits of small-town stereotypes, and while Cramer’s firebrand speeches seem unsubtle to the modern ear (particularly coupled to the beginnings of those unique Shatner cadences), they’re really not so far from what was really going on in America – and the hatred he stirs up is still disturbingly present, if not so visible. It’s telling that Corman ends the film, not with redemptive violence visited on the instigator, but the mob dispersing to think on their behaviour or to try to forget it, and Cramer humiliated but free to leave – this lesson may be learnt, but very likely will not be passed on.

(Interesting, also, that actor Frank Maxwell, who plays the town’s newspaperman (the first character to mistrust Cramer), was apparently blacklisted during the McCarthy era, just a few years before this film was made – another reminder of how different an age it was.)

Sin Nombre

I have a horrible feeling that Van Diemen’s Land has effectively ruined me for any other film this festival – my perspective has been thoroughly distorted. For example, Sin Nombre features a sequence in which a young boy has to kill a member of rival gang as part of his initiation, and the victim is subsequently fed to the dogs, and I’m sitting there thinking ‘meh, no biggy’…

I tweeted Sin Nombre as “Pretty, sweet, slight…“, which as the aforementioned sequence suggests is somewhat inaccurate. It’s set in South America, cutting between a girl, Sayra, travelling from Honduras to the US and a young gang member (El Casper to the gang, Willy to his girl) in Mexico until their paths cross and their journeys continue together. The film doesn’t stint on the inherent violence of both gang life and that of the illegal immigrants, nor does it get bogged down in moralising (which was my main concern).

Sin Nombre publicity still

And yet – Well, you could hardly argue against it being pretty – it’s beautifully shot, with some striking images, particularly of the immigrants travelling on the top of a freight train across Mexico. And sweet – the two young leads are sweetly innocent, and the characterisation in general has a gentle charm that bucks against the violence. And that’s partly the problem – the strongest characters aren’t the leads, but the charismatic gang leader and the young boy that the hero recruits into the gang. The gang leader is a complex balance of violence against his enemies and a paternal loyalty to his gang, and it’s unfortunate that the film has to push him too far towards the violence in order to set the story really running.

The boy is fantastic – essentially an observer in the first act, his increasing involvement in the gang is crucial to the story, and the film sends his path in unexpected directions, heading into violence but never forgetting his essential youth. For the most part, it does this with wit, rather than belabouring the issue – there’s a scene with a group of younger boys, all eager to follow his path, that is both funny in itself and ever so slightly devestating. There’s also a nice streak of incompetence in the gang members chasing after Willy as he tries to escape the gang.

With the focus of the film on Sayra and Willy, the script gets a little bogged down in overly pat “You don’t know what you’ve got yourself into” conversations that the leads can’t quite pull off. And towards the end there are a few mis-steps that push the emotion a little too hard. It doesn’t help that Willy is patently doomed from about halfway – the film may be more authentic for it, but it still feels overly sacrificial. I realise that it’s problematic – it’s quite probable that if he’d survived, I would have condemned it as an absurdly cosy ending.

Another first feature, by American director Cary Jôji Fukunaga, Sin Nombre is an impressive debut. If he can resist the more predictable – dare I say American? – routes that I feel this took, he’s another director to look out for. Actually, that’s another aspect – it’s no surprise, despite it being in Spanish, that this is made by a US, and not a South American, director – the problems that I see have that air – it’s not as naive as some US perspectives on this subject, but I’m still not wholly convinced by it. Compare it to say, Sleep Dealer, which is a very different take on the immigration issue – Sin Nombre doesn’t have the inherent anger of that (perhaps less technically accomplished) film, and while it’s not actively condescending, there’s a slightly passive air to the characters.

(I should probably watch it further away from Van Diemen’s Land to see if it holds up better on its own.)

The Pit and the Pendulum

Which is what I want to call my pub. (Alas, I’m not the only one who’s thought of this.)

Honestly, I’m still recovering from Van Diemen’s Land. Still loving the Corman/Poe awesomeness, but don’t have much to add to that…

The Pit and the Pendulum poster

(Except possibly to say that at no point does any female character wear a negligee that flimsy :)

An Unflinching Eye on the Past

There’s a particular type of film that turns up at film festivals that tends to infuriate me, because the only thing I come out of them saying is ‘Beautiful, but depressing’.

Van Diemen’s Land is beautiful, and depressing. But it is not one of those films.

It is also slow, and grim, and relentless, and horrifying, and desolate, and wholly remarkable.

It’s loosely based on a true story – perhaps more accurate to say it’s extrapolated from a real event. Eight prisoners escape from the British penal colony into the Australian wilds with little or no food, and many weeks later, one prisoner is left, and he – how shall I put it – is not starving.

In some ways, I almost don’t want to review it – the less one knows about the film, the greater the impact. But it is not a film I would want to recommend to people without some warning as to its content. This is a film about men in desperate straits who turn to cannibalism to survive, and it is not the warm-and-fuzzy, noble depredation of, say, Alive.

The only film I can remember having such an intense physical reaction to is Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s response to the Columbine shootings. Like that film, Van Diemen’s Land wound me so tight that I found myself still shaking – almost in tears – hours later. This is not the instant visceral reaction of the sort that Lars Von Trier clearly hopes to provoke with Antichrist (a film I have no intention of seeing at the EIFF. Or ever). Quite the opposite – Van Diemen’s Land unfolds so slowly that even as the grim nature of the story becomes clear, the full impact is delayed. (I have a tendency, particularly in ‘serious’ films, to always have a part of my brain already analysising the film and my reaction to it, composing the review as the film progresses. It’s a bad habit, because it means that I can get stuck on first impressions. Here, despite the ever-present ‘so, how does it make you feel?’, the impact of the film was not lessened. I suspect that analytic part of my brain failed to notice the little part that was just going ‘oh. my. god.’ over and over.)

Crucial to the film’s success – what prevents from becoming merely horrific – is the time it takes to ease into the story, coupled to the entirely too believable characterisation. The convicts are fully realised, human. They tell dirty jokes and squabble, as any group of nineteenth century English-, Irish- and Scotsmen might be expected to – they are not ciphers. By the time the story reaches its turning point, you are fully invested in what happens to them – which, of course, makes each murder all the worse. In a (perhaps unintentional) parallel of horror conventions, the film subverts your expectations of who will survive – again, the less you know going into the film, the better.

“Hunger is a strange silence”

There are so many things that could have gone wrong with this film. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of film I end up resenting – the slow pace, the sustained dissonant notes on the soundtrack, the enigmatic pronouncements on the nature of good and evil. And the extreme nature of the content means that it could easily have slipped into being either absurd or outright unpleasant. Yet the film is – remarkable.

It’s the first feature film by Australian director Jonathon Auf Der Heide – who, judging from his appearance at the screening, looks to be about fifteen – but it has the assurance of a much more experienced filmmaker. The slow pace is measured, not tedious, and the sounds are subtle (they walk through a forest devoid of animal and bird life, the silence only lifting in the last few moments). The characters are well-drawn, the images striking but not simply for their own sake – the landscape is it’s own beauty, filmed subtly in muted colurs. Those muted colours draw some of the sting from the violence, and he knows when to cut away. He also knows when not to cut away, and does not shy away from the brutality of his story – he has an unflinching eye, but it is not daring you to look, merely showing what there is to see.

Van Diemen’s Land is as striking and powerful a film as I’ve seen in Edinburgh: difficult, undoubtedly, but utterly compelling.

Van Diemen’s Land website

High Life

I sometimes think that we go about defining genres in the wrong way. When I want to annoy people, I say there are only three types of movie: the Western, the Rom-Com and the War Movie. But there are genres of – not theme, exactly – story: the Road Movie, the End of the World Movie, the Coming of Age Movie. Within those genres, the more traditional genres all appear – road movie comedies, tragic apocalypses, and so on.

Particularly prevalent is the Heist-Gone-Wrong Movie, and High Life is a blackly comic entry into the genre.

It’s simple enough: 1983, and new-fangled ATMs prompt a drug addict to ‘plan’ and carry out a bank robbery with a group of friends of differing levels of addiction, competence and sanity. Inevitably, it all goes horribly wrong. The result is a very funnny movie that plays with the malfunctioning logic of drug addiction to great effect. It doesn’t pull it’s punches, and mostly doesn’t belabour either the humour or the darker points that undercut it (it’s obvious one character has AIDS, but it’s never explicitly stated, because in 1983, who knew?). It handles the twists well – both the unexpected and the inevitable (well, someone was always going to get shot…)

I’d say that it shows its origins as a stage play – although I don’t know if I’d say that if I hadn’t known – hm… Some of the speeches have that sort of feel, as do the wilder elaborations – but on the other hand, I’ve no idea how some of the action would have been handled on stage – without knowing what has been changed, it’s hard to judge. It never feels stagey, just occasionally theatrical rather than cinematic.

That’s partly the script, but also the delivery, and they tie perfectly well to the tone – the slightly arch, heightened reality of black comedy. It’s particularly good for its star, Timothy Olyphant. Much as I adore the guy’s eyebrows*, I always slightly feel as if he’s at one remove from his roles: here, it meshes with the overall feel of the film. (And it’s not as noticeable as in crappy roles like his villain in Live Free or Die Hard.) You could also say that this character is the flipside to the one he played in Go – still one of my favourite late-90s films.

*Don’t ask.

House of Usher

(I was considering a bad punning title, but I’ve decided to spare you, just this once)

The EIFF’s Roger Corman retrospective kicked off with The Fall of the House of Usher, the first of his splendid Poe adaptations. It’s gloriously gothic stuff, in fabulous Color (not technically Technicolor, as that’s a trademark – the titles proudly announce that it’s in ‘Cinemascope and Color’). Also screened with French subtitles, because the best print they could find was French – here’s hoping it gets a digital restoration soon (unnecessary subtitles are surprisingly distracting, even when in a language you don’t understand :)

Fall of the House of Usher poster

It’s ages since I’ve read Poe, so I can’t remember how closely it sticks to the story (probably more than The Raven does, but that’s not saying much). Either way, it doesn’t really matter – Corman’s Poe films are a thing unto themselves, and I’m so happy to see them on the big screen. Of course, the slightly staid Filmhouse isn’t quite the right setting – the Cameo would be closer to the fleapit vibe you’d really want. (Not that it’s a fleapit – I’m not starting anything – it’s my favourite of all the cinemas involved in the fest)

The film’s joy, the reason it works at all, is Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. That voice, as much as anything, and the perfect balance of lugubrious camp (it’s not camp, exactly – more like an awareness of the absurdity and a willingness to commit to the film regardless) and menace he brings to the film.