Author Archives: Gareth Negus

My top 5 cinema experiences

Right now, all the country’s cinemas are closed, and I’m missing them. My own, particularly, but also just cinemas in general. I’ve been to, I think, 89 different ones in my adult life (yes, of course I’ve got a list), 11 of which have subsequently closed – plus a few more in my childhood (maybe one day I’ll figure out exactly where I saw Star Wars, but that would take more detective work than I feel like right now).

A lot of my favourite film experiences have involved not just the film, but where I watched it, and the total strangers who were in the audience with me. People complain about audiences a lot – look at the comments on any online article about cinemas and you’ll find people crowing about how they prefer to watch at home on their massive TVs without mobile phones going off and exorbitantly priced popcorn – but I don’t think they’re much worse than they ever were. Sure, mobile phones are a pain, but who else remembers the chorus of chirruping digital watches sounding the hour back in the 80s?

So here’s a short list of some of my favourite cinema experiences. They’re not necessarily my favourite films, or my favourite venues – though there’s a certain amount of overlap – just a handful of examples where I could not possibly have had the same experience watching the film at home.

The Abyss, Cannon Cinema Rochdale, October 1989

The Cannon was my local cinema when I was growing up in Rochdale, and once I got the cinema bug it was where I went pretty much every weekend. The audience could be overly chatty if they weren’t engaged in the film, as happens when people go to the cinema for something to do rather than to see a particular film (do people still do that?). This would certainly irritate me during something like Sex, Lies and Videotape, but if the film was a crowdpleaser then it could be a definite plus. Among my favourites: Beetlejuice, Die Hard, and Gremlins 2 – especially that bit which is designed specifically to work in a cinema (you’ll know the one I mean if you’ve seen it).

I’ve picked The Abyss because of the audience’s interesting reaction. There’s a bit about three quarters of the way through when Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are trapped in a sub with only one diving suit between them; he has to let her drown, drags her over to the main base, and try to revive her. He attempts mouth to mouth and chest compressions with no luck, getting increasingly desperate as the other characters tearfully urge him to accept the inevitable. He almost does, but then redoubles his efforts.

Throughout this whole sequence, the audience sat in silence, absolutely gripped. James Cameron had them in the palm of his hand. Until the moment that Our Heroine, who has been dead for several minutes, gives a choking splutter and revives. At that point, everyone fell about in mocking laughter.

Many of the reviews at the time singled out a later section of the film for criticism, but the film was a lost cause well before that moment when I saw it. I’ve never seen a film lose an audience so completely, before or since.

Lone Star, Cornerhouse Manchester, 1996

When my interest in film started moving beyond the mainstream, the Cornerhouse became my new favourite venue. Among the films I particularly remember would be Do the Right Thing, Land and Freedom, reissues of Mean Streets and The Wicker Man. I’ve picked Lone Star because it was followed by a Q&A with the writer/director, John Sayles. It wasn’t my first Sayles film (I’d seen Brother from Another Planet on TV, and City of Hope at the Hull Film Theatre) and it wasn’t even my first director Q&A (that was Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels at the same venue). But it was the first time I was able to see in the flesh a filmmaker in whom I had developed a strong interest. I didn’t ask a question though.

The Blair Witch Project, Anjelika Film Center, New York, July 1999

I got lucky with this one. I was in New York on holiday when the Blair Witch Project opened, and I got to see it when the hype was only just starting off (a lot of people were disappointed when it finally reached the UK, and no wonder after so much build up). I’m not sure if I’d even heard of it before then. The film was in its second week of release, and only playing in two cinemas – the Anjelika in New York, and one in Los Angeles.

There was a screening, I think, every hour, and there were queues around the block, so the atmosphere was already good. Found footage shakycam isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (and there have been plenty of terrible examples of the form since) but the film worked for me. By the end of it, I was a wreck: my legs were shaking so much I had to hang on to the seats as I walked out.

One thing I particularly recall is that, due to America’s different rating system (where kids can watch pretty much anything so long as an adult takes them) there was a boy behind me who couldn’t have been much more than 11. “So are they all dead?” he asked his mother. “Well, I guess so, honey,” was he less-than-reassuring reply.

The guy next to me leant over as they got up to leave. “If I’d seen that film when I was that kid’s age,” he said, “it would have fucked me up for life.” I couldn’t disagree.

Bridesmaids, Curzon Cinema Clevedon, July 2011

I was Director of the Curzon Cinema at the time of Bridesmaids’ release, but I sometimes visited as a member of the audience – either to check the customer experience for myself, or because I wanted to see the film. This was a bit of both.

I felt a bit of trepidation as the hall filled up. Obviously I was happy it was busy, but I noticed that there was a slightly unusual mix of patrons – one half of the auditorium was filling up with the over 40 crowd (like many indie venues, this was the Curzon’s primary market) while the other half had a lot of teenagers. Different audience segments can have different ideas about what constitutes acceptable behaviour in a cinema, and what is unacceptably crude in a comedy.

I needn’t have worried; they all loved it. Although I wasn’t wild about the film myself, it’s a fact that comedy is one of the genres that are unquestionably better with a crowd. There’s nothing like the feeling I had that night as I listened to a couple of hundred people of varying ages, all united in laughter at a single, perfectly timed use of the word ‘cunt’.

Final Destination 5, Empire Leicester Square, August 2011

I wanted to include a festival visit to round off this piece, but to my surprise, I struggled to think of one. I’ve been to the Edinburgh Film Festival many times, and London a fair few, but I would usually see films at the daytime industry screenings rather than with the general public, which is a slightly different experience.

Then I remembered seeing Final Destination 5 at Frightfest. Horror is the other genre that is definitely better with a crowd (just with deaths taking the place of jokes), and this particular audience was predisposed to like it. It helped that the film was a cracker – great kills, and a nicely planned twist at the end – but few things are better than watching people dying horribly in the company of hundreds of like-minded viewers.

To close, here’s a clip from Joe Dante’s Matinee that perfectly encapsulates the anticipation of going to the cinema. That shot moving up to the stairs to the auditorium doors still sends a little shiver up my spine. Ironically, I didn’t see this one in the cinema.


How I learned to stop worrying and create my own DCPs

Ever since digital projection became the norm, I’ve been trying to crack the problem of finding some decent intros, preferably reasonably priced and personalised to my cinema.  (Here’s one that I used to see every week at the local during my youth.) This used to be pretty easy in the 35mm days – you would order a few reels stating ‘Coming Soon’ or ‘Starts Friday’ or ‘Our Feature Presentation’, use them ’til they got scratched to buggery, then buy replacements.  They were readily available from the likes of Jack Roe or Sound Associates. But with digital – because you only needed to buy them once – the usual suppliers dropped them.

Some online searching led me to a company called Cinitize, who supplied some decent off-the-peg options at not-objectionable prices. (They will also created personalised versions, though these will, unsurprisingly, set you back a lot more.)  This is their pop bulb coming attractions trailer:

One disappointment is that some of their material is a bit American. Not that I blame them, but most of their trails about phones refer to ‘cell phones’ which looks odd to UK audiences, and most just ask you to silence them rather than turn them off, as though those little glowing screens don’t distract anyone. Still, I’ve been using several of their trailers for about a year. But I’ve still been hankering for something that’s a bit more specific to us.

When I discovered that there were free programmes available to create DCP files, I started to wonder – are these easy for the fairly non-technically adept to use? Can I combine these with my 8 year old version of Photoshop and create something that won’t embarrass me if I put it on screen?

I started out by looking for a programme that would let me create a simple animation. I downloaded Blender, but after a quick look it became clear that I was biting off more than I could chew.  So I started simple: trying to create a static slide asking customers to turn off their phones, that I could add to the programme just before the film started.  Jpeg artwork ready, I turned to Open DCP to see if I could convert it.

I couldn’t. However, some more online research led me to DCP Builder, which I’ve found to be rather more user friendly, largely thanks to its simple wizard which leads you through the process. Again, standard Photoshop formats weren’t what was needed – and a single slide, I discovered, leads to something that appears on screen for less than a second.

Finally, I turned to Windows MovieMaker.  It turns out that a single image can be turned into an 8 second unmoving film.  (Who knew?)  This can then be freely converted online into the necessary format for DCP Builder to use.

This was encouraging, but the real breakthrough came when I discovered that you can download lots of royalty-free animated clips ideal for cinema intros, for free – and some music to go with them. Here’s one example which seemed ideal:

OK, I know we don’t use reels or film anymore, but they still say ‘cinema’ better than any of the little zeroes and ones that might represent digital projection.

Sadly, though the backgrounds work fine in moviemaker, the programme didn’t allow me to overlay my venue’s logo.  That can be done, but it looks like I’d have to actually spend some money on a more sophisticated programme, which I was trying to avoid.  So I had to fade into a still image at the end:

I added music to the film, but I discovered that DCP builder doesn’t recognise that – you need to load the music file separately. Unless you want the track to start right at the beginning (I didn’t), this means editing.  Turns out there’s some free stuff that will let you do that too.

With a combination of a free countdown background, free music and a slide of my logo, I ended up with this:

It’s getting there, and with a little more tweaking I have no doubt that I’ll be running my own trails and intros on screen within the next week or so. Whether any members of the audience will notice the difference, I have no idea – but I’ll know.  A more elaborate programme could enhance it – maybe I’ll invest at some point.

And if any cinema operators reading this feel like getting their own versions… well, the stuff I used is all freely available.  Alternatively, I would be delighted to create something for you at a very reasonable price.

Finally, if anyone is still wondering why I bothered with all this, here’s a collection of classics from the past that inspired me.

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s latest is another film indebted to earlier pulp fictions, this time the spaghetti western.  As with much of his work, it has moments of brilliance, is very entertaining in large parts, but is too long and let down by its creator’s self-indulgence.

The film would be vastly improved by cropping its running time by a good twenty minutes or so.  There are only a couple of scenes I’d dump completely (which I’ll come to in a minute) but almost every one could easily be trimmed.  Unfortunately Tarantino seems to have difficulty in killing his babies (Inglourious Basterds suffered from the same problem), and at this point, nobody is going to make him.

Django has been controversial for its copious use of what is referred to, in respectable company, as the n-word; I had no objections to it in context, but then being white and British I suppose it doesn’t carry the same kind of baggage for me.  Nor was I concerned about the violence, of which there are two kinds: the violence perpetrated on slaves by sadistic whites, and the OTT blood bath of the climax.  To be fair to Tarantino, scenes showing the first variety are played straight; one could argue they are exploitative, in that they engage our sympathies and set us up to relish the cathartic slaughter at the end, but I think the director was honestly trying to be responsible in their depiction – and may have been deliberately using the film to educate his audience (through, for example, the lecture on phrenology given by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character).  This could conceivably be the first time some viewers will have seen this period of history depicted in such a manner; if that leads them to investigate this particular noxious facet of America’s past, then that’s surely a good thing.

Tarantino’s determination to be seen to be on the side of the angels is also, I suspect, the motivation for one of the scenes I’d happily cut; a comedy sequence showing an inept troupe of Ku Klux Klansmen struggling to see out of their hoods.  It’s funny, and mocking the KKK is generally worth doing, but it adds nothing to the story and would work better as a DVD extra.

The other scene that needs particular trimming comes late in the movie, and features Tarantino himself in an extended cameo.  Nobody really sees Tarantino as a great actor, and while it’s not his worst performance, it’s a major distraction that takes you out of the film – which was starting to try my patience at that point anyway.  He’s also doing an accent (get you, Meryl Streep, I thought).  Possibly this has allowed him to cross ‘work with John Jarrett’ off his bucket list, but I’m afraid that’s not justification enough.  Let’s give credit where it’s due, though: Eli Roth isn’t in it.

What’s great about the film is Christoph Waltz as Dr King Schultz, the German bounty hunter who frees, then befriends the slave Django (Jamie Foxx).  In fact, I found Waltz’s character arc more interesting than that of Django himself.  The title character, initially barely literate, is introduced to the idea of role playing by Schultz, and takes to it with surprising ease; he is also the one who pushes Schultz to face the fact that his own profession has uncomfortable similarities to the slave trade he despises.  The film suffers when Waltz is off screen for too long, another reason why the last half hour drags.  I also enjoyed Leonardo DiCaprio as the repellent plantation owner Calvin Candie, though it’s a big performance that threatens to smother some of the more serious elements.

But the man who by rights would be collecting an Oscar is Samuel L Jackson, whose work as Stephen, Calvin’s house nigger, is simply extraordinary.  Stephen is a vile character, the worst kind of collaborator, who shifts from obsequious slave to paternal mentor to DiCaprio. He made my skin crawl like few other characters in recent cinema.

Is the film it worth seeing?  Well, for all its flaws, it has vividly stayed with me, so I would have to say yes.  As a movie about slavery, many may find it exploitative and tasteless – but I’d far rather see Tarantino’s slavery movie than another asinine tale of nice white folk curing America of racism (yes, The Help, I mean you).  You can’t think of any other American director who could have made this film – you’d struggle to think of any who would dare even try.

Cinema exhibition and the Picturehouse deal

I was more than a little surprised by this morning’s news that Cineworld have bought the Picturehouses cinema chain and  I’ve spent (slightly too much) time following the reactions on Twitter.  It’s been noticeable how many people have been worried that the deal will negatively affect the ambience and programming of their beloved Picturehouse, changing it into another soulless, grotty, uncared for multiplex – the sort of venue they wouldn’t be seen dead in. What they don’t seem to realise is that this is what made the chain so attractive to Cineworld in the first place.
A quote from Cineworld Chief Executive Stephen Wiener, makes this crystal clear: “This acquisition gives us an opportunity to accelerate our growth by reaching new audiences in a high value and growing part of the market.” The high value part of the market he refers to is not arthouse film buffs as such – that particular market segment is miserably small in the UK – but older cinemagoers. Because though Picturehouses have been described in the press today as an arthouse or independent chain (though I’m unclear how large a chain has to be before it ceases to be independent) they’re really about serving a segment of the audience that doesn’t like multiplexes. That audience may flatter themselves, as they read the reviews in their Friday Guardian or Telegraph, that they are interested in arthouse films, but what did they see last time they went to the pictures? Skyfall, most likely, which is why so many ‘independent’ Picturehouse cinemas have been screening it lately (four of their six London cinemas are still showing it today, and it’s in another five across the country).

So the fear that Picturehouses will suddenly be full of mainstream Hollywood releases (or more full than they are already, in some cases) is probably misplaced – though one wonders what will happen if the chain has a bad year and can’t deliver the returns to the new owners.  But it does mean further consolidation in UK cinema exhibition, around 70% of which is now controlled by Vue, Odeon/UCI, and Cineworld.  So where does that leave arthouse releases that aren’t Great Expectations or The Artist?
Coincidentally, I attended a meeting recently which discussed the BFI’s four year strategy, Film Forever, developed following the axing of the UK Film Council, when the BFI found themselves with responsibility for distributing Lottery funding. One was a meeting of smaller commercial cinema operators; one was a BFI ‘meet the funders’ roadshow.
The BFI are in an interesting, and perhaps slightly uncomfortable position; while the UKFC was always aiming to build a sustainable film industry with an eye on the commercial, the BFI has historically been the home of arthouse filmmakers – the Loachs and Leighs rather than the Ritchies and Loves.  Film Forever contains a lot that I’m in sympathy with.  But it does return to the question of how to grow audiences for specialised film, something that the arthouse exhibition sector (and various funding bodies) have been grappling with for decades.
The UKFC had a crack at stimulating increased specialised exhibition with the Digital Screen Network, but – not to put too fine a point on it – fucked it up (I’ve written in detail about this previously on this blog).  Their central idea – that a good way to increase audiences for arthouse releases is to make them more available, and get them shown in more cinemas – is one that is echoed in Film Forever.  It makes sense in principle – reading about a film that sounds great, only to discover it’s only showing 50+ miles away or won’t reach your town for months, is frustrating.  But the whole if-you-screen-it-they-will-come concept is flawed.  The fact is, while some apparently arthouse releases can and do cross over to a mass audience, plenty more won’t, and shouldn’t be expected to – releasing them on more prints isn’t going to change that.  (The January 2013 issue of Sight & Sound has a good piece by David Locke on this subject.) 
One reason why small releases don’t work in multiplexes is because those venues are profit driven. If a film isn’t pulling the numbers in over the weekend, it comes off.  This works against anything that may need word of mouth to build.  In turn, the customers who do like films of this nature come to regard the multiplexes as places that don’t cater for their tastes, and look elsewhere.  (Like a Picturehouse.) 
But if there’s no business reason for cinemas to book specialised films, one has to wonder if cinemas are even the best place for such release.  There has already been experimentation with release windows on some of these titles (avoiding the usual four month of so gap between a film’s cinema and DVD/VOD release).  The pros and cons of this matter are too wide ranging to go into here, but it’s notable that Curzon/Artificial Eye (who, usefully for them, are a distributor which owns or programmes a number of cinemas) also have an on-demand service that shows their own releases (among others) from the date they hit cinemas.
Much of the commercial sector looks with deep suspicion on anything that looks like public money being used to interfere in the market; I know that some smaller cinema operators view Film Forever as an unwelcome, and indeed uncompetitive, interference in their business.  A number of people at the BFI roadshow, on the other hand, were despairing at the paltry amounts of funding on offer.
I had some sympathy for both positions, believing as I do that artistic and commercial sensibilities can work hand in hand.  Though I was slightly catty about Picturehouse programming above, I understand why they operate the way they do.  But there are reasons why specialised films tend not to work in mainstream cinemas, and why they can work in smaller, more individual venues. Part of it lies in the atmosphere – the design of the foyer, the bar, the attitude of the staff, the choice of snacks on offer can all help a visitor decide whether or not this place is designed for people like them.  But ultimately, the secret is in the programming – one size does not fit all, and the best venues know and understand their audiences.  It’s also why a national film strategy developed and controlled from London may be no use whatsoever to large portions of the country.  That’s why consolidation in the exhibition sector is, in the long term, a bad thing – distributors and audiences alike need truly independent venues, both in the commercial and subsidised sectors. 

You’re nicked! The Sweeney review

Only one week after seeing Cockneys vs Zombies, I found myself watching Cockneys vs Robbers.  Honestly, you wait years for a film with Alan Ford in, then two come along at once.
The original TV series of The Sweeney managed to provide a mix of exciting (and fairly explicit, for the time) violence with relatively gritty plots.  The new film, directed by Nick Love, aims for a similar blend.  In other respects, though, similarities with the original are largely coincidental. Where the TV series dealt in miserable looking backlots and warehouses (it was, let’s remember, the principal source text for Life on Mars) the film treats us to repeated shots of London’s glittering skyline, international banking names prominent on the skyscrapers.
Ray Winstone and Ben Drew step into the shoes of John Thaw and Dennis Waterman as Regan and Carter, the aging maverick hard man and his acolyte.  In the film, their partnership is augmented by a team of flying squaddies – Sweeney Toddlers? – who are carefully cast to ensure gender and ethnic diversity.  This allows the viewer to have fun trying to guess which one will die three quarters of the way through the film.  Among them is Hayley Atwell, who is having an affair with Regan; not his smartest move, as she’s married to the internal affairs cop (Steven Mackintosh) currently investigating the Sweeney.
The plot?  Well, there’s a particularly nasty bunch of villains knocking over banks and jewellers; during one such robbery, a customer is shot in the back of the head.  Regan isn’t having that – not on his patch, not while he’s Sweeney – which is the cue for lots of shooting and running around.
Though the TV show was produced in the 1970s, the screenplay feels born of the 1980s.  The generous quantity of macho posturing seems to stem from that decade (Regan’s constant banging on about he’s doing what has to be done might lead the uninitiated to assume he was originally played by Kurt Russell rather than John Thaw), as does the enormous number of bullets strewn around London’s streets.  A foot chase that takes in some very familiar landmarks inevitably brings Heat to mind.   It’s slightly odd seeing an avowedly American-style thriller that incorporates the likes of Trafalgar Square.
The 80s mentality is also manifest in the film’s concern with visual gloss – you certainly can’t imagine the 70s police occupying the vast, gleaming office space enjoyed by the movie Sweeney.  The handheld camera and frenetic chases are more resonant of the Bourne movies (as are the Big Dramatic Strings on the soundtrack), while never, of course, being anywhere near as good.
It’s a slicked-up version of the source material aimed principally at a generation who won’t have heard of, let alone seen, the original series.  (Weirdly, it does quote the series’ best-remembered line, though in a peculiar context – there are clearly no trousers readily available for the arrestee to put on.)  Taken on those terms, The Sweeney certainly delivers the goods.  Whether their evident hope for sequels comes to anything remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Take This Waltz

Actress turned director Sarah Polley’s first feature, Away From Her, surprised many people by focussing on the relationship between two elderly people rather than, as one might expect, characters closer to Polley’s own age.  It earned Julie Christie an Oscar nomination for her work as the Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife, and my only quibble with that is that Gordon Pinsent, as her husband, should have been equally recognised.
In Take this Waltz, which she both wrote and directed (Away from Her was based on a story by Alice Munro) Polley focusses on younger characters, but the subject is again a marriage that appears to be in its final stages.  Michelle Williams stars as Margot, who has been married to Lou (Seth Rogen) for five years.  Lou is a nice man, their marriage is comfortable, but perhaps too much so; for when Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a work trip, they are immediately attracted to each other.  And when it turns out they are actually neighbours, temptation starts to seem irresistible.
In an early scene between Margot and Daniel on a plane, Margot talks about her paralysing fear of airport connections: she hates being between places, apparently, so much so that she needs to be ferried between planes in a wheelchair.  I was slightly distracted by the big neon sign that said “Metaphor!” flashing persistently in the corner of the screen throughout the exchange… or did I just imagine that?  Anyway, it’s a ham-fisted bit of writing, and thankfully the film does not descend to anything quite so clumsy again, though a few moments come close.  Several of the best scenes play out without dialogue, including a scene of Margot and Lou swimming, a visit to a funfair, and a montage near the end (to Leonard Cohen’s title song) which includes a couple of bits that widened my eyes for a moment.
The best thing about the film is Michelle Williams.  It’s hardly a surprise by now how good she is, but she does a terrific job at making Margot likeable – no mean feat, given some of the character’s behaviour and apparent difficulty with self-awareness.  Rogen is also very good.  The film looks pretty as well, though you wonder how the characters can afford to live in the large houses and apartments they do.
It’s unfortunate that the script sometimes feels the need to spell things out, as the film is far more eloquent when things are left unspoken.  Indeed, the ending is nicely ambiguous – is Margot actually any happier, or has she just managed to distract herself from her underlying problems? While it suffers slightly in comparison to Polley’s previous film as writer/director, this is a romantic drama that pleasingly tries to avoid the pat answers usually found in plots of this nature.




Edinburgh Film Festival: Berberian Sound Studio

Finally, a Powell nominee that looks, feels and, most of all, sounds like an award winner.  Berberian Sound Studio, from Katalin Varga director Peter Strickland, stars Toby Jones as a sound technician recruited to work on a Suspiria-esque Italian horror film in the early 70s. More at home with gentle documentaries about the English countryside than graphic tales of undead witches, Jones soon finds his grip on reality loosening.

It’s difficult to describe the plot in any more detail: it’s essentially a journey into the protagonist’s fracturing psyche.  So while those seeking a traditional narrative may be left frustrated, anyone who wants to see the tools of cinema used to surprising and creative effect can expect a treat.  I was reminded of The Artist by the way sound is used to play with and confound audience expectations, while the sense of menace and disorientation has much in common with David Lynch (I was particularly put in mind of Inland Empire).

Spaghetti horrror buffs may well also be intrigued (it did cross my mind that the film might also turn up at FrightFest); it’s clear Strickland knows his Argento, and while some genre fans might be baffled by the closing scenes, I’ve seen Lucio Fulci films that made a lot less sense.

It’s one of the best films at the Festival, and one which clearly loves film – both as an artform and a physical object.  Highly recommended.

Edinburgh 2012 part III

Let’s start with some nominees for the Michael Powell Award. Life Just Is starts with several characters watching a film on TV. One comments: “That’s 90 minutes of my life I’ll never get back”. This is what is known in Film Studies circles as ‘asking for trouble’.
I won’t comment further on the script, as I left about half way through. I took no pleasure in doing so – getting a film made obviously entails a great deal of work, and I generally feel I should at least watch the end result properly before putting the boot in.  But this time I just couldn’t.
He film is a tale of middle youth angst, starring a bunch of twentysomethings. The opening scenes are among the most stilted I’ve seen in years; a group of people sitting awkwardly in a room that, it is painfully obvious, is not where they live in real life (it is absurdly tidy), delivering dialogue with lengthy pauses between each line. It feels like watching an early rehearsal of a fringe play.  Whatever effect director Alex Barrett was aiming for is missed by miles.
It’s not as though he’s lacking in visual sense, though his influences can be a bit obvious; there’s a nice shot that follows one character along a street before circling round in front of him. But this will do him little good if he can’t master shooting dialogue that sounds as though it’s being delivered by actual human beings.
I am something of a sucker for films set in Cuba (even more so than for films set in Edinburgh). You’re pretty much guaranteed stunning locations and a great soundtrack. So John Roberts’ Day of the Flowers, the story of two bickering sisters taking their father’s ashes back to Trinidad, was always going to score some easy points from me.
There’s plenty more to like in the film as well, starting with the cast – Eva Birthistle and Charity Wakefield as the leads, and Carlos Acosta as the inevitable local romantic interest (the excellent Bryan Dick is sadly left largely on the sidelines). Against that, the plot unfolds in rather predictable fashion. You know Birthistle’s determinedly self-reliant and perpetually right-on character will have her preconceptions challenged, and will learn to accept help from the right sources. You know that she and her more materialistic sibling will fall out before becoming closer; and you know that some family secrets will be unexpectedly revealed (though some of the details here were left a little vague).  It hits all the emotional beats in a fairly effective manner, but that’s not always enough. There are a lot of films in cinemas, and for a release to stand out it generally needs either a massive marketing budget, or to be very, very good.  Day of the Flowers is an entertaining watch,  but the screenplay needed a further polish to raise it above the ‘fine for TV’ level.
Much better is California Solo. Robert Carlyle stars as a former britpop star now living quietly in California, where he works on a farm. Haunted by guilt over the death of his brother, he drinks far too much. When he’s caught driving drunk, an old drugs possession charge leaves him facing deportation.
It’s no surprise that Carlyle is terrific. What’s less expected is the fine screenplay from director Marshall Lewy. Lachlan (Carlyle’s character) has clearly spent a fair chunk of his life acting like a bit of a shit, yet Carlyle gives him the charm and charisma to show why his friends stick with him.
Better yet,the screenplay allows Carlyle to gradually reveal the character without having to spell things out. It makes it’s points about the need to accept and face the past without resorting to easy sentiment, and is all the more moving for it. Highly recommended.
A very different kettle of squid is Grabbers, yet along with California Solo, it’s perhaps the most satisfying film I’ve seen at Edinburgh yet this year. What we have here is essentially the Irish Tremors. It’s not quite as good as Tremors – few films are – but it’s several cuts above your average monster movie.
Something nasty and hungryis emerging from the waters around a tiny Irish island. It drinks blood, bites off heads, lays eggs and thrives in water – and there’s a big storm on the way, which makes things all the tougher for alcoholic Garda cop Richard Coyle and his perky, by-the-book partner Ruth Bradley.
The film looks good, and has impressive creature effects.  The cast is strong – Russell Tovey delivers some top drawer drunk acting – and, most importantly, someone has paid attention to the script, which delivers plenty of laughs. You’re bound to get a chance to see this one, and hopefully in cinemas: it’s a dead cert for FrightFest, and deserves a decent release.

Edinburgh 2012 part II

Three days in to this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, and while I haven’t seen any major stinkers, there’s been nothing to blow me away either. Let’s start with the longest. Blood of My Blood is a three hour drama set in Lisbon, based around the travails of Maria (Rita Blanco) and her extended family. The themes are family loyalty and sacrifice, but the tools unfortunately include a plot reveal straight from the box of melodramatic cliches. Also, a climactic scene is overly unpleasant – that’s enough forced blow jobs for one year, Edinburgh, thanks all the same.

Lovely Molly is the latest from Eduardo Blair Witch Sanchez, and suffers from overfamiliarity. Not only does the use of video footage recall his debut (although this is not a found footage film), but plot elements recall recent releases such as The Silent House and The Pact.

Gretchen Lodge is very good as newlywed Molly, who moves with her husband Tim into her parents’ home. Pretty soon, things are going bump in the night and family skeletons are emerging from the closet. Is this an actual haunting, or is Molly going nuts?

The answer seemed pretty obvious to me, despite some attempts to imply a supernatural dimension – which Sanchez admitted in the Q&A were bumped up after early test screenings. Although that does give us one memorably eerie image at the close, it also means the story doesn’t completely satisfy at either level. An OK watch that doesn’t offer anything new, you can safely wait until this one’s on telly.

That’s also true of Flying Blind, a BBC production starring Helen McCrory as an aerospace engineer who starts a relationship with Algerian student – OR IS HE? – played by Najib Oudghiri. Though nicely played and good to look at (Bristolians can play spot the location), the central relationship feels like a dramatic construct rather than anything real. If the superior Page Eight last year couldn’t muster a cinema release, there’s no reason for this not to go straight to BBC 2.

Better things came with Life Without Principle, Johnny To’s crime thriller set against a global financial shitstorm. Various characters – among them a cop, a gangster, a bank saleswoman, and a bunch of financially strapped innocent bystanders – are involved in are affected by the murder of a loan shark. I’d bet my money on a Hollywood remake of this coming our way before long, so invest some time in the original.

Finally, one of my favourites to date. The best thing about festivals is sitting down for a film about which you no little and expect nothing, and being delighted by the result. That’s what happened with Flicker, a deadpan Swedish comedy centred around the struggling Unicom Telecommunications company.

Attempting to launch a new 4G network, but faced with a misguided advertising campaign and customer dissatisfaction and regular sabotage, the company also has staff who aren’t quite up to the challenge. Chief among them is sad sack Kenneth (Jacob Nordenson), whose recurring IT problems leave a crucial report incomplete, and Trod (Knell Bergqvist), the company head, who is heroically unaware of his own inadequacy.

Though we eventually realise the film is set in 2011, the design seems to have been pickled in the 70s. Almost everything at Unicom (including the cars, the decor, and Kenneth’s entire wardrobe) is in shades of brown. (Maybe bits of Sweden do look like this, but it seems unlikely.) Their attempts at promotional launches are no more up to date.

A number of plots intertwine, occasionally threatening to tip from somewhat black comedy to outright tragedy, while never quite doing so. Occasionally absurdist, with moments of outright slapstick, the film is quite a charmer. Lovely closing shot, too.

Edinburgh 2012: Day one

The Life and Times of Paul, the Psychic Octopus

Alexandre O Philippe’s documentary The People vs George Lucas, shown at Edinburgh a couple of years ago, was a hugely entertaining look at Star Wars fans’ love/hate relationship with their favourite films,and their creator. His latest also looks at how celebrity culture affects and inspires its followers, through the story of the cephalopod who enjoyed a stunning run of accurate predictions during the 2010 world cup.

Opening on a melancholy note with Paul’s funeral, the film then looks at his rise to fame, his effect on those around him, and the question of whether or not his predictions were anything more than a massive fluke. Many of those interviewed – Paul’s UK-based agent, for one – clearly have their tongues in their cheeks at least part of the time, but the film is careful to allow Paul, and the other animals who make brief appearances, to retain their dignity. It’s like a more flippant version of last year’s Project Nim. Even the psychics who claim to receive messages from the deceased octopus are not mocked (at least not openly; the viewer can draw their own conclusions). It’s a nice balancing act that results in an entertaining film that asks sensible questions about a silly subject; although the relatively brief running time is quite long enough.

7 Days in Havana

A portmanteau movie from directors including Benicio del Toro, Gaspar Noe and Laurent Cantet (among others) that comprises seven short films set in the titular Cuban city. That’s quite a few shorts, and I did feel that maybe 5 days in Havana would have allowed several of them valuable extra breathing space. As it is, the stories are on the slight side, starting with Josh Hutcherson as a young actor who has a brief encounter on s drunken night out. Emir Kusturica amusingly plays himself as a drunk, grudgingly accepting an award from the Havana Film Festival, but the most memorable and disturbing segment is Noe’s voodoo vignette. While as a full movie it may not totally satisfy, Havana itself – as always – looks, and sounds, beautiful.

Killer Joe

This year’s opening film is a lurid, violent, occasionally funny slice of melodrama from William Friedkin; though if I hadn’t known, I might have taken it for a lost work by Oliver Stone.

Matthew McConaughey is on great form in the title role, as a cop who moonlights as a hired killer. He’s employed by a spectacularly dumb white trash family for a plan masterminded by Chris (Emile Hirsch) to kill his mother for the insurance payout. As Joe normally demands payment up front, Chris agrees to put up his younger sister Dottie up as collateral. Dottie (Juno Temple) appears to be away with the fairies for much of the time, but to what extent is tough to say.

Obviously, the plan goes wrong, and it does so in a fairly OTT manner. I was unaware going in that the film is based on a play (by Tracey Letts) but it became obvious well before the end. It actually feels like something Quentin Tarantino trying to write like Tennessee Williams; the mix of explicit violence and black comedy is sometimes uncomfortable, and the characters never feel as though they have any existence beyond the stage.