In The Shadow Of The Moon

If there is only one thing that survives my cynicism, I hope it is my admiration for, and belief in, the determination and ingenuity that put men on the Moon. For all that it was driven by the “Mine’s bigger than yours” of the Cold War, there is something transcendental about that very human endeavour.

It’s the human faces of that endeavour that form the core of this documentary. The actual story it tells is almost laughably familiar, but to hear the astronauts talking about their experiences, physical and emotional, is compelling.

That each of these men walked on the moon sets them apart from the rest of us – but in hearing their stories, you get a better sense of their normality. (For all their test-pilot, daredevil backgrounds, NASA astronauts are almost uniformly solid, temperate men.)

It’s almost comical how far the astronauts, now in their seventies, encapsulate the image of the all-American grandfather, just as they embodied the all-American hero in their youth. They have a certain honest awe about their past, but also a sense of the absurdity of it. The film’s star turn has to be Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who didn’t land on the moon – a self-deprecating and goofily funny presence throughout.

It is not in any way a critical film – it touches on but does not interrogate the political and social turmoil of the time, and the Cold War rivalries that precipitated the Space Race. It’s sole purpose is to recount the memories of these astronauts in their own words.

(It has to be mentioned that the footage of all stages of the mission is still stunning, whether the familiar, iconic images or less familiar footage.)

Bawling quietly into my popcorn all afternoon

Generally, the part of me that warms to tear-jerking cinema gets thoroughly battered by the part that watches Tarantino movies, but I guess that part was sated yesterday, leaving me susceptible to two heart-warming and (thankfully, subtly) tear-jerking movies that, on the surface, couldn’t be more different.

Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle follows the fractious relationship between an orphaned boy and his grandfather, coloured by and contrasted against the stories the old man weaves for the boy and his siblings. Set in skye, it’s predominately in Gaelic, and mixes scenes of cosy domesticity with the bleak beauty of the island’s black basalt mountains (both familiar from family visits to Skye)

It quietly layers the stories, balancing the family drama with tales by turns romantic, tragic, supernatural and comic, tied up in the story of the boy’s return as his grandfather lies dying, in a tale with a touch of the supernatural that gently reinforces the boy’s need to face both the impact of the old man on his life, and the circumstances of his parent’s death

The Italian, in contrast, is a Russian film, filmed with an unflinching eye for the grime of a Russian winter. (In fact, the grime and mud might seem overkill, coating every car, churned up in every roas, but it’s entirely authentic – and it does end up with a certain beauty.) The central character, the Italian of the title, is also an orphan, a young boy whose angelic features have him singled out for adoption by an Italian couple. But rather than rejoicing in this chance at a new life, the boy is driven instead to search for the mother who abandoned him. The movie follows him as he travels to the town of his abandonment, lying his way with easy guile of the innocent.

The Italian is very much driven by the unforced performance of the boy, with a beautiful supporting cast playing his fellow orphans, from his pragmatic friend telling him to appreciate his chance to escape into a new life, to the older boy who runs the orphanage as a pint-sized mafia while retaining a sense of responsibility for the younger kids, to the girl who acts as mother figure to the younger boys, and the girl who helps him learn to read so that he can read his file and discover his mother’s whereabouts. The interactions between the children always seem natural, helping the story build organically.

In contrast, the adults in the film are far more caricatured, their actions nd their pursuit of the boy more farcical, even when shading into more ominous territory.

It’s a slow-burning film, drawing you in with a distinctive senswe of place and circumstance. And while there are a few moments when its young lead was clearly told to look sad, it’s a remarkable performance – and by extension, a remarkable directorial achievement.

In Seachd, the child actors are less impressive, but nonetheless more endearing than your standard issue precocious child – in both films, the children are children, not knowing references to an adult world. Seachd, however, is dominated by the charismatic figure of the grandfather, making the most of the Gaelic and its power in storytelling. (“Played by renowned poet and storyteller Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul” – no, I haven’t heard of him either, and his Wikipedia entry is in Gaelic…)

Seachd has some striking imagery – soft, lyrical images, like the Cuillins shrouded in mist and bathed in the orange light of sunset. Edinburgh Castle was doing something similar the other night, only it was shrouded in rain, and lit by the orange of sodium lights…

Proof Positive

OK, so, I’m knackered, I’m soaked to the skin, I’m on the last train out of Edinburgh on a Saturday night (which is either a really great time or the scariest thing you’ve ever experienced) – and you know what? I feel good. Why? Because Quentin came through.

Yeah, once again Tarantino restores my faith in cinema.

I’ll be straight with you. The colour scheme on this website was never intended as a Kill Bill reference [since changed, but at the time it was yellow and black] – it was meant as an ironic statement on the weather. And quiet trickster – QT? That’s coincidental. But I’ll freely admit – I was a Taranteen.

A large part of what I crave from cinema, that I hold dear in cinema, comes from Tarantino, and the effect his work had on Hollywood in the 90s. So I’m a little prejudiced. But at the same time, it’s always hard to avoid getting caught up in the backlash that follows Tarantino around like a whipped puppy.

He’s self-indulgent, workshy – It isn’t Inglorious Bastards. It isn’t Reservoir Dogs, or Pulp Fiction. It’s immature, it’s just the same old, same old, only with more booty.

What it is, is cinema. Full on, all out, fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke cinema. It’s sick, and gratuitous, with no stinting on the ‘Ew! Fuck!’ And it’s smart, and funny, and practically feminist next to the current trend for torture porn (or even the CSI: NY episode in which actress Vanessa Ferlito last died in a car)

Any fool can pastiche the cheap-ass exploitation flick – Who else could make it look better than almost anything screening this year? Not sumptuous set dressing beauty, not elegant long shot beauty – frame for frame, couldn’t work any other way, rich, pure cinema. Hell, who could get all those guys to sit through so much chick flick banter?

Quentin Tarantino. Can’t act for shit, but, damn, the man knows cinema.

(And gotta love Kurt Russell’s John Wayne impression…)

Getting animated

Ah, Pixar. Doesn’t that make you grin, just thinking about it?

(And OK, it caused my first miss-timing of the festival, as it was either delayed or much longer than I thought when I was buying the tickets, because it finished just as the McLaren Animation 2 screening started at the Filmhouse, 20 minutes walk away… So, not quite sure what I missed there – liking the simple line/pen drawing styles, but also the live action/stop-motion/flipbook relationship angst thing, which is unlike me – Also the retro-style nursing home action pic, which is far more my thing. But haven’t I seen that found footage/collage/toy car noir before? These, making the mixed media work…)

Anyway, Pixar – Ratatouille (Firefox’s US spell checker wants to substitute ‘Bouillabaisse’, which is interesting…): It feels a little predictable to say that it’s not as good as Pixar at it’s best, but it’s still miles better than anything else in the mainstream.

Case in point – I felt that the character design for the human characters didn’t have the snap that some of their stuff has had – it’s a problem that’s always plagued CG, even for Pixar, like Brad Bird’s previous film, The Incredibles. But compared to the blocky, un-differentiated characters in the Shrek films, they’ve far more personality. The rats themselves work better – they don’t have the ‘Wow’ factor Pixar sometimes achieve (we already know Pixar can do fur) – but there are some superb little touches. The switches from rat to human perspective are handled wonderfully – the rats’ voices transformed to the squeak of, well, rats – and they catch the skittering movement of rats perfectly.

Bird’s forte seems to be the heart-stopping action sequence – this, as with The Incredibles, has several break-neck sequences. Animation has the benefit of being capable of achieving a more fully immersive perspective than live-action – in the case of one sequence, literally. That sequence, early in the film, as our rat hero, Remy, is separated from his family and flung headlong through the sewers of Paris, has just that extra flair of image and sound design that lifts it up above the common.

But there’s no truly sublime moment in the film – either visually, like the seascapes in Finding Nemo, or verbally, like Toy Story‘s “You are a strange, sad little man…”, or – I could go on. (Bird’s first feature, The Iron Giant, is one of the few films I’ve had to stop, mid-DVD, because we were laughing so hard we had to catch our breath – that, from a simple visual joke executed perfectly…). And there’s a part of me that thinks Pixar will never surpass the short film Luxo, Jr., on which their logo is based… But then, it’s probably a little churlish to expect sublime from a kid’s movie (the kids loved it) – particularly when I’ll put up with much, much less from any other studio, whether animation or live-action.

It is great fun, and while the story is not groundbreaking, and some of the jokes are past their best-buy (I can’t believe I just wrote that), and the logic of having French characters speak with accents in the ‘Allo ‘Allo mold, while the French rats all sound American, is shaky – it has verve, and a sincerity that had me surreptitiously wiping away a tear. (Mind you, that could just have been me coming down from the pick ‘n’ mix sugar high. Besides, Die Hard makes me cry…)

Pixar always make me wish I had the patience to be an animator…

In Search of a Midnight Kiss

A fairly standard issue indie rom-com (probably could have guessed that from the title), featuring that favourite subject of struggling writers and actors (struggling writers and actors), and set over 24 hours at New Year in Los Angeles.

It starts shakily, with some unsteady acting and excess plotting, but grows more endearing as it continues, even if (or more likely, because) it doesn’t really go anywhere. It flits from broad brush explicit humour, to ambling first blush rom-com, to serious grown-up relationship angst – perhaps to it’s credit that it manages this fairly coherently.

It’s going for that ‘microcosm of twentysomething experience’, with an offbeat humour (that’s a terrible way to phrase it) that stops it from piling up behind the more angsty moments – undercutting, informing. Off-kilter, perhaps, although that’s perhaps to fussy – it’s not unconventional, merely pert enough not to think the angst is more realistic than the comedy.

It does have a strong visual flair, particularly as the central couple wander LA in the ‘getting to know you’ section. The film’s crisp black & white photography lends character to the city – possibly unwarranted character, trying to give a little 70’s New York decay to LA’s bland sprawl, but even if it’s faked, it adds an interesting dimension to the fairly conventional action. A sequence of stills following the girl’s revelation that she has a website of photos of lost shoes shows a real eye for an image.

That idea, and the initial premise that has the protagonist post a lonely hearts ad on Craigslist on New Years Eve (“Misanthrope seeks misanthrope”), suggest that the film intends to use the vagaries of splitting life on- and off-line, but it’s never really taken anywhere, other than to shore up the possible infidelity of the protagonist’s friends girlfriend. (The one they walk in on him masturbating to a Photoshopped image of) (Did I not mention that?)

That incident sets up the second act rom-com rift between the protagonist and the girl who answers his ad, when they swear to reveal a secret to each other – he tells her about this and she, not entirely surprisingly, walks off in disgust. Her secret, told when they’re reconciled, is, inevitably, that she’s pregnant by the irate boyfriend she’s just left. That it manages to use more than the broad comedy to draw you in, gradually turning the characters into more rounded characters – the protagonist not simply navel-gazing depressed failed writer, the girl opening up into more than the standard issue flake she starts out as – means that you’re left with more than a fleeting impression of life in the edges of Hollywood. And the fact that the couple don’t end up together is all the more interesting – the film continues beyond the ‘midnight kiss’ of the title that an archetypal rom-com would stick with.

It reminds me of one of the first films I saw at the festival (can’t remember the name), with the same strong b&w photography and aimless wandering around in a not-quite-relationship – although it might be more appropriate to call it a combination of Swingers and Before Sunrise in it’s content.

McLaren Animation 1

From which the most pertinent observation might be – where cel or handdrawn, claymation or stopmotion animation gains a feeling of individuality when it’s a little scruffy or unpolished, CG merely looks shite.

OK, that’s harsh – the two examples here were screened consecutively, and were both trying to be ponderously enigmatic about sex, which is a bad enough idea when your characters don’t look like poorly textured computer game characters. But I never understand why shoddy CG short animation never seems to escape the scrutiny aimed at larger productions.

I realise that the amount of computer power involved is prohibitive, but shouldn’t that mean the animators find a way to use the limitations of the medium? And unless it’s simply a skills showcase (for their sakes, one hopes not), can’t they find a writer? Because even if the animation is glorious, it isn’t a film unless it has something to say or reveal. A few years ago, one of the selected ‘World’ animations was a Dreamworks showcase, all slinky CG movement and texture – technically remarkable, but with no content. The audience was significantly polite, compared to the enthusiasm they showed for scrappier work. And if the animation is lousy, you better have a killer concept, story or punchline. I’ve seen very shaky student CG fly by because they still made the audience laugh.

I don’t really mean story in that overly pedantic screenwriting course manner – one of the most striking in this set, The Accident, reveals its story in hesitant re-iterations of a childhood memory – all done in a simple pen and ink style.

The films shown in this selection where all very short, which I prefer – more for your money, but unfortunately means that it’s harder to pick out highlights. The others I voted for (the McLaren Award is voted for by the audience) – John and Karen (a charming film about a relationship between a polar bear and a penguin, with a minimalist ligne-claire style that uses tiny character movements to great effect), and the Pearce Sisters (a slightly grisly comic tale involving two sisters living on a desolate island, who gut and smoke more than just the fish they catch, with a striking style, although it’s familiar from somewhere – it’s in a blocky, graphic style I see a lot in things like Computer Arts magazine.)

The Filth Elder

I’m beginning to think that this was the equivalent of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth last year – it doesn’t really tell you anything you didn’t already know, but it’s good to know he’s doing it, and it’s always possible that someone, somewhere, will have their life changed by it.

Like Gore’s film, This Filthy World is basically just a filmed version of John Waters’ stage show, with near static cameras and about three audience reaction shots (all good for at least one person who doesn’t get the joke). It suffers slightly in crossing the Atlantic – references that might be obvious to Americans – or possibly just students of American trash culture – don’t play so well, compared to the (admittedly in poor taste) skit about Michael Jackson’s personal burns unit.

One hopes that Waters’ always positive stories about the people he’s worked with are sincere – it would chime with the almost straightforward morality of tolerance that colours his films. Certainly one gets the sense that even when he’s mocking, say, the inhabitants of his native Baltimore (snatches of priceless dialogue overheard: “Why is mommy crying?” – “Because you’re an asshole.”) it’s driven by affection, not contempt – a delight in the fact that this world is so imperfect, so filthy.

[Q&A session to follow]

World Animation 1

Not a bad start to my festival, but not an entirely auspicious one either – a fair amount of pretension, topped and tailed by more entertaining stuff. I should check the catalogue to get more information, and if I remember, I’ll look up the filmmakers, but first impressions:

Started with a very cute, high-end texture & 3D CG animation, Hum, which worked well in itself, although short films about little lonely machines that construct other little machines for company, and variations thereof, are becoming very familiar. I should check, maybe it’s one guy being very prolific. I’m not complaining, but it suggests that the criteria for selecting these shorts is dominated by the animation, not how they stand up as stories – as films in their own right.

The second, a slightly Matrix-y SF piece, Glitch, seemed to be betraying small screen origins, but was probably more hamstrung by the three lines of dialogue that could have been left out – the sound mix seemed shaky with the dialogue, oddly, and it had a simple enough story with a nice (visual) payoff.

The next, Down The Road, had the opposite problem – it could have been quite a neat two-hander as a live action short, with good enough actors and less semaphoring of the plot twists, but died a death within the confines of some distinctly lo-fi animation better suited to comedy than a thriller.

Canvas had some very strong stop-motion model-work. But unless there was something going on about commenting on how artworks will revolt against pretentious artists, just plain pretentious.

My Love, an atmospheric Russian animation, with a dreamlike sensibility, but either that or something missing from the translation resulted in a slightly uneven narrative – it always kind of felt there was a scene missing. I’m not sure if it expected you to know the source (if there was a source).

The last short, a Canadian production, while neither visually nor narratively original or stunning, was funny, in a straightforwardly daft surrealist way, with a very cartoony style. See, I’m shallow – I always like the laughs over the pretentious noodlings over the nature of the creative process.