Sitges Film Festival 2013

Afflicted
Afflicted

Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia

11 – 20 October 2013

Sitges, Spain

Sitges website

If there is one place on Earth where film lovers can truly find solace, it has to be in Sitges during the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fant&#224stic de Catalunya, which this year celebrated its 46th birthday, presenting yet another packed programme to a hungry audience. For the power of cinema to transform, there can be no better example than a seaside town turning itself into a Mecca for lovers of genre film. For 11 days, Sitges eats, breathes and lives film, with queues of filmgoers on the streets, the celebrity spotters, the red carpet junkies and much, much more.

With Europe still reeling from economic mishaps and with unemployment sky high, it would be foolish to expect any festival to remain untouched. However, it is to Sitges’s credit that the festival managed to maintain an aura of positivity and encouragement, reminding audiences that art plays an important role in lifting the mood of people, as well as in creating new channels of debate.

Although this year’s edition saw many heavy-hitters within the genre present their work to the public, including Eli Roth, Ti West and Lucky McKee, it was the smaller, lesser-known films that stole the limelight.

Afflicted (Derek Lee, Clif Prowse, 2013)
Although at first glance, it seems like just another entry in the over-crowded found-footage market, Derek Lee and Clif Prowse’s entry in the genre proves to be head-and-shoulders above most of their competition. Focusing on the directors’ attempt to travel around the world, Afflicted sees Derek contract a mysterious disease. As his body starts to reject all food and begins to show signs of superhuman strength, the two best friends try to figure out the source of the illness and save Derek before it’s too late.

While Afflicted suffers from all the negative trappings of the found footage film, it’s not long before the keen eye of the directors makes itself felt. The set-up is familiar, yes, and the acting decidedly hit and miss, but it’s the technical prowess and the sheer adrenaline excitement of some of the set pieces that really carry the film forward. Reminiscent of the last climax of Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012), these set pieces are both technically impressive and visually exciting, giving the film a momentum that at other times can be lacking. Overall it can be considered a very impressive calling card from two young directors who prove what you can achieve with very little money.

Les rencontres d’apr&#224s minuit (Yann Gonzalez, 2013)
Ali and Matthias, along with their transvestite maid Udo, prepare for a midnight orgy in their apartment – they’re waiting for the arrival of The Star, The Teen, The Slut and The Stud. With such a set-up, the audience might expect some sort of vivid, garish and highly questionable scenes to play out, as one after another the members of the orgy arrive. What we get instead is a delicate and very deliberate rumination on the nature of time, on love, on desire and on very large penises.

With thrilling and seductive electronic sounds from M83, Yann Gonzalez’s first feature-length film may fall short of its ambitions, but nonetheless this is one of the more original and engaging films to emerge from any country this year. Boasting a talented cast including Eric Cantona as The Stud, Les rencontres d’apr&#224s minuit (You and the Night) deserves to find an audience with those willing to take their cinema in more intelligent form.

Watch the trailer for Les rencontres d’apr&#224s minuit:

Possession (Brilliante Mendoza, 2013)
Brilliante Mendoza’s winning streak comes to an end with his depiction of the supernatural invading the immoral battle between rival television companies. Playing out like a cross between over-wrought satire and found-footage genre film, Possession (Sapi) tells the story of Meryll Flores (Meryll Soriano), who after being unable to get the footage she needs to boost the ratings of her Sarimanok Broadcasting Network, uses underhand tactics and buys the footage of a real-life possession, filmed by the camera crew of their rival network, Philippine Broadcasting Channel. The director plays this in tandem with the members of the team slowly becoming ‘possessed’ themselves; whether the supernatural stands as a metaphor for the greed and anger that pervades Philppine media is for the audience to decide.

However, the structure of the film does not work with the usual hand-held style of the director, and becomes grating by mid-point. The analogy between the evil that men do and the actions of those in the media feels overdone, and while some of the special effects are eye-popping, there’s nothing here for the audience to really hang onto. Although overall a mess, there’s no doubt to Mendoza’s talent – but it remains up to the director to perhaps distil his message more precisely for his next project.

Watch the trailer for Possession:

Real (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2013)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s foray into science fiction is built upon an intriguing premise: Manga artist Atsumi (Haruka Ayase) lies in a coma after trying to killer herself by drowning, leaving her lover Koichi lost and bewildered. Koichi (Takeru Satoh) agrees to use new ‘sensing’ technology, which allows him to step into her subconscious and try to bring her back out. However, complications arise when Koichi is inside Atsumi’s mind, experiencing the version of reality created by her subconscious.

Similar in concept to last year’s Vanishing Waves, the film’s promising start gives way to a dull and plodding series of events, which seem to go nowhere. Although Kurosawa continues his exploration of themes such as alienation, loneliness, the self and reality, Real ends up being nothing more than a very forgettable and obvious effort. The deft touch he showed in films like Retribution, and even his recent TV series, is missing here, and what the audience is left with is a bland trip into the subconscious, punctuated by the most ridiculous third-act revelation. An unusual miss from the master.

Watch the trailer for Real:

Ugly (Anurag Kashyap, 2013)
Last year’s Gangs of Wasseypur represented a pinnacle for director Anurag Kashyap: a culmination of his skills in one of the most important films of Indian cinema, a rule-breaking behemoth that defied pretty much everything an industry is known for. However, if Ugly is anything to go by, Anurag Kashyap has not stopped striving; perhaps best described as a low-key companion piece to Gangs of Wasseypur, it is another prime lesson in confrontational cinema.

Rahul, a wannabe actor whose chance to succeed is fast running out, is spending the day with his 10-year-old daughter from a former marriage to Shalini, now a middle-class housewife kept prisoner by her police-chief husband Bose. When Rahul leaves his daughter Kali in the car to pick up a script from his casting-director friend Chaitanya, the little girl goes missing. What follows is the ugliest, most brutal damnation of human nature that cinema has seen for a long, long time. Playing out like a shrine to humanity’s failings, Ugly is one of the darkest, most impressive noir films you could ever hope to see. No one, and it’s worth repeating this, absolutely no one in Ugly has any redeeming qualities, and if anyone makes the mistake of making any humane gesture, they’re promptly punished for it. From the desperate father with a star complex to the ex-wife with suicidal tendencies, Anurag Kashyap exposes all his creations as twisted and horrifying. His ability to take standard Bollywood characterizations and put them through the greed and hunger of the 20th century creates unforgettable moments in a film filled with desperation and excess.

Kashyap also managed to pack into the tight running time some of the most incredible cinematic sequences seen this year. Ultimately, the film is further proof that there’s something very exciting and remarkable happening within Indian cinema; it remains to be seen what Kashyap will offer us next – whatever it is, it certainly will be worth watching.

Watch the trailer for Ugly:

Evrim Ersoy

Film4 FrightFest 2013 – Part 2

VHS2
V/H/S/2

Film4 FrightFest

22-26 August 2013

London, UK

FrightFest website

We follow up Part 1 of our Film4 FrightFest 2013 coverage with more reviews of some of the most notable films in this year’s line-up. Below, Evrim Ersoy looks back at his highlights from the programme.

Cheap Thrills (E. L. Katz, 2013)
One of the best films to grace the screen at Film4’s FrightFest, E.L. Katz’s debut feature is a heady concoction of morality tale and unrestrained thrill ride. Pat Healy plays Craig, a sometime-writer who’s down on his luck, working blue-collar jobs to make ends meet for his wife and kid. On the day he’s going to ask for a raise, Craig finds himself fired. Too depressed to head home, he stops off at a local bar only to run into Vince – a high school buddy who works as a collector for a loan shark. Before you know it, the two are having a drink, and it’s not long before they’re joined by a couple, Colin and Violet, who are out to celebrating her birthday.

How the story proceeds is half the fun in this unexpected, impossible-to-guess tale, which marries strong characters with plausible plot developments and creates its own odd, offbeat rhythm. As the stakes get raised further and further, the whole debacle becomes more and more difficult to watch – however, it is to the credit of the excellent script and brilliant direction that it’s almost impossible to tear your gaze away from the screen. Boasting perhaps the most brilliant final shot of any film this year, Cheap Thrills is an incredible opening gambit from a clearly talented and promising creative team. Do not miss it.

Watch the trailer for Cheap Thrills:

Dark Tourist (Suri Krishnamma, 2013)
Michael Cudlitz stars as Jim, the titular ‘dark tourist’ who spends his holidays visiting a serial killer’s locations, including the murder sites. However, Jim is much more than who he first seems, and as he gets closer to two women – one a waitress at the diner and the other a prostitute who occupies the room next door at his hotel – his dark nature is slowly and shockingly revealed. Suri Krishnamma’s exploration of one man’s tortured soul can be, by and large, considered a failure: although Michael Cudlitz gives a decent performance, the material itself is so weak and fractured that nothing can really save this mess of a movie.

Mistaking general stereotyping for character study, Dark Tourist goes through the clichés of every descent-into-hell study and comes up with even more hollow statements to make. Fitting every impulse neatly into black and white categories, the film is nothing more than a glorified TV movie, with perhaps some of the worst insights into human nature seen on film. All in all, there’s nothing new in the world of Hollywood’s understanding of the whys and hows of the creation of monsters – the answers are still simplistic and banal, even with the wealth of information and resources available.

Watch the trailer for Dark Tourist:

Odd Thomas (Stephen Sommers, 2013)
In the tradition of Hollywood thrillers of the 80s like The Burbs, Odd Thomas is a delightful, offbeat yet mainstream film that will be sure to please those looking for some old-school thrills. Anton Yelchin plays Odd Thomas, a short-order cook with the ability to see dead people, who uses his powers to bring killers and murderers to justice. Addison Timlin plays Stormy Llewellyn, while Willem Defoe is Chief Wyatt Porter, who knows about Odd’s powers, and helps to keep them hidden.

Stephen Sommers keeps the whole film lighter than a ball of marshmallow, while the set-pieces and special effects are impressive enough for a film clearly not made on a big budget. The central mystery is simple – for once it’s nice to see a thriller where there aren’t complicated layers after complicated layers – it’s a true Hollywood case of good guys vs. bad guys, and Odd Thomas is not a lesser film for it. Clearly trying to attract as wide an audience as possible, this is a breezy, fun-ride reminder of how good Hollywood mainstream can be when it chooses to. Delightful.

Watch the trailer for Odd Thomas:

The Last Days (David Pastor, &#192lex Pastor, 2013)
Taking the typical apocalypse scenario, but putting it through one of this year’s more unique reincarnations, The Last Days is a glossy, character-driven drama with some real heart.

The time is now. Humanity develops a severe form of agoraphobia overnight, with those daring to venture outside immediately dying. Everyone is stuck exactly where they were when the illness struck, with people trying vainly to access the subway tunnels to be able to travel. Marc is an office worker who is desperate to get back to his girlfriend, who he is sure is still alive. He finds himself teaming up with new colleague Enrique, a corporate downsizing expert. The two men form an uneasy alliance, which will see them confronting the very best and worst of human nature through a fallen Barcelona.

With a threat that is almost completely internal, The Last Days eschews the usual horror of the infected or zombies for something a bit more cerebral. While the descent into unruly behaviour apes those seen in other apocalyptic films, directors David and &#192lex Pastor keep the story moving quickly enough for the audience not to become irritated by these similarities. Terrific central performances from Quim Guterrez and Jose Coronado keep the audience rooting for these two everymen, who also seem to represent figures from Spain’s recent economic downturn. Only a divisive third act threatens to derail what has been an engaging series of set-pieces; however, the film is assured enough to let the audience determine the meaning of the final 20 minutes. All in all, it’s an admirable and terrific effort, definitely worth seeking out.

Watch the trailer for The Last Days:

V/H/S/2 (2013)
If the first film was a tentative but flawed attempt to breathe some life into the well-worn anthology format by combining nostalgic longing and creepy storytelling, this second instalment represents a coming-of-age of the most over-the-top kind: like the unruly brother who bursts in the door at the most importunate moment, V/H/S/2 is loud, brash and brilliant.

V/H/S/2 will be released in UK cinemas by Jade Films on 14 October.

Veering from the sublime to the outrageous, V/H/S/2 is a terrific combination of talent and ambition. Most of the stories are not only technically impressive, but also combine terrifying scares with laugh-out loud moments. Without spoiling any of the storylines, suffice it say that the four segments vary from alien abductions to strange cults, with eye transplants and zombies in between. Standout segments from Gareth Evans and Jason Eisener impress and astonish in equal measure, however, the talents of other directors (especially Adam Wingard’s tender Carpenter tribute) must not be ignored. V/H/S/2 is an engaging, brilliant sequel, which deserves a huge audience to enjoy it loud and big at the cinema – an almost perfect Saturday evening film.

Watch the trailer for V/H/S/2:

Snap (Youssef Delara, Victor Teran, 2013)
Although it seems far too lazy to define a film in terms of its music, there’s no other way of explaining Snap, a psychological thriller deeply settled within a dubstep rhythm.

At first glance, the story is familiar: Jim Whitman is a shy musician who spends most of his time alone at home. When he finds himself drawn to Wendy, a social worker, and Kevin (played by the brilliant Scott Bakula), it seems that he might be able to step outside his comfort zone for the first time. However, Jim’s inner demons are not willing to let go without a fight, and the scene is set for a distraught showdown.

None of the elements are new, but it’s what the film does with them that surprises. Snap treats the audience as equals, and rather than relying on unnecessary twists to make the narrative seem interesting, it focuses instead on the characters, slowly painting portraits of lonely, isolated and damaged people thrown around by the waves of life. Jake Hoffman excels as Jim Whitman, at once charming and yet sinister, while his battle with his own psyche might be one of the better portrayals on the screen for a long while. The sound design also deserves a mention, with the loud and disruptive soundtrack affecting the very nature of the film, with the abrupt jumps and the sudden cuts adding to the overall atmosphere. This is a very assured effort from two young directors and is well worth a watch.

Watch the trailer for Snap:

Evrim Ersoy

Punchdrunk and the Cinematic Theatre

The Drowned Man
The Drowned Man (© Photo by Pari)

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

Format: Theatre

Production: Punchdrunk / National Theatre

Location: Temple Studios

Now booking until 30 December 2013

National Theatre website

Recent years have seen the mediums of theatre and cinema become closer than ever before: while the two have always had crossovers, the results have been hit and miss. But as theatre tries to reach out to an even wider audience, with National Theatre Live broadcasting across cinemas in the UK, and established directors such as Danny Boyle taking charge of theatrical productions, these events are becoming more and more commonplace.

The National Theatre has always taken risks under the direction of Nicholas Hytner: Boyle’s interpretation of Frankenstein was a huge success, and not only brought in a different audience who might not have been regular theatregoers, but also employed cinematic special effects and tricks to create a show that could travel beyond the stage. However, it seems that the National Theatre is now willing to take this idea even further.

One theatre company has always blurred the boundaries between cinema and theatre. Since its conception in 2000, Punchdrunk has been using cinematic language to tell stories within a theatrical setting, creating an all-immersive experience. Punchdrunk shows differ from the usual theatregoing experience: the audience and the performers are not separated – there are no seats and no stage per se. Instead, the audience explores at their own speed and interest whatever the setting may be: a dilapidated hotel in New York, the cavernous nooks and crannies of Battersea Arts Centre, and even a disused post office. Within these unusual locations, the company creates a story that is non-linear and perhaps cryptic, but a story nonetheless.

Take, for example, The Masque of the Red Death (2007-8), where the Battersea Arts Centre was turned into chambers of tableaux, all inspired by the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. The audience, given and encouraged to wear masks throughout the performance, explored the rooms at their own speed, following performers, looking for secrets, and culminating in a lavish, grand ball where the Red Death finally held inimitable dominion over all.

The joy and delight of the show comes from allowing the audience a sense of freedom that theatre doesn’t usually provide. As the audience members examine, investigate and engage, they create their own story, putting together the elaborate pieces of a puzzle. By deconstructing the structure of a play, Punchdrunk allows for return visits and multiple interpretations. Just as the images on a cinema screen can be open to many interpretations, so Punchdrunk’s productions leave an open ending for those keen to look further.

Another example of Punchdrunk wholeheartedly embracing cinematic tropes was seen in their hugely successful show Sleep No More (2003) – the story of Macbeth, disfigured and re-interpreted with references to Hitchcock, Kubrick, Lynch and even Nolan thrown in. While theatre relies heavily on the spoken word, Sleep No More was completely silent. Neither the cast nor the audience spoke, and the audience was told to never take off their masks. Entering the fictional McKittrick Hotel, they explored the rooms and the corridors, encountering silent groups of actors interpreting scenes: crushing medicine, embracing, fighting and sometimes dancing.

As Punchdrunk’s success continues to rise, the company has worked on a grander and grander scale. The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is their most ambitious work yet. Working with the National Theatre for the first time, the company has taken over a gigantic disused post office in Paddington, turning it into, among other things, an old Hollywood studio. The story is loosely based on Woyzeck, but as with every Punchdrunk production, not much of the original material remains. What now appears are loose threads which the audience has to piece together to understand.

Being their most openly cinematic work for a long time, The Drowned Man also represents a further opportunity for the company to explore their cinematic ambitions. By placing the audience in the role of the camera, they create a unique and individual ‘film’ for each member of the audience. And the genius of using Woyzeck – an unfinished story that can be re-interpreted many times – allows them to twist the material to further utilise their medium.

While site-specific theatre is nothing unfamiliar, the lengths Punchdrunk go to resemble more the obsessive location scouting by film productions than the usual stage play. The Drowned Man is the result of six years of research – and patience. Their sets, which can take more than one visit to discover, are minutely detailed. As a spectacle, the shows are nothing short of breathtaking. However, there’s also something alienating about the company, too. Stories of audience members feeling exasperated are all too common: the cryptic, momentary nature of the productions mean that many important scenes can be easily missed, and given that the tickets are not cheap, this can end up being a huge turn-off for the casual theatregoer. Unlike with cinema, people are not afforded the freedom to take home a DVD of the show to investigate in their own time. It is a highly unique, highly individual and sometimes very difficult experience.

But while the visual arts try to re-invent themselves, threatened on all sides by cookie-cutter mediocrity, it is incredibly heartening to see someone taking the huge risks that allow us to discover more intimate details in the very nature of the mediums we know. Punchdrunk may stumble from time to time, but their approach to melding cinema with theatre throws up tantalising possibilities for both worlds, which is not something to be sniffed at.

Evrim Ersoy

Watch the trailer for The Drowned Man:

Istanbul International Film Festival 2013

Thou Gild'st the Even
Thou Gild'st the Even

Istanbul International Film Festival (&#304KSV)

30 March – 14 April 2013

Istanbul, Turkey

&#304KSV website

The jewel in the crown of Istanbul’s buzzing cultural scene, the Istanbul International Film Festival. is a unique event that acts as a crucial bridge between east and west – it’s hard to deny the importance the festival plays in unearthing Asian and Middle Eastern films, screening them alongside their European counterparts.

Although the line-up was as strong as ever, this year’s 32nd edition of the festival was home to much dissent: the closure and subsequent attempts to destroy one of Istanbul’s oldest cinemas, Emek, has been opposed by many local activists, artists, and actors. However, the mantle this year was also taken up by international guests like Costa-Gavras and Patricia Arquette, who not only raised the social media profile around this issue, but also stood in the front ranks of the protest walks. An unnecessary show of power by the local police, though, meant that most of the cinematic luminaries were on the receiving end of pepper spray, as well as being harassed, harangued and generally shoved around. Turkey’s oldest film critic, Atilla Dorsay, was also one of the figures who received such maltreatment, and, as result – and a sign of protest – quit his column at the Sabah newspaper after having written there for more than 20 years. Whether the construction company that plans to erect yet another shopping mall within the Beyo&#287lu area took any notice of the ruckus remains to be seen, but it seems as if Istanbul residents will not let this issue die without a fight.

Going back to the pride of the festival – its strong programming – this year’s slate revealed new trends within contemporary Turkish cinema. Although it’s obvious that the country’s filmmakers still feel the need to follow the example of their most successful luminary, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and create suffocating character pieces, a number of attempts at varying styles stood out.

Among these, perhaps the most ambitious was Onur &#220nlü’s Thou Gild’st the Even. Highly unusual in both content and style, &#220nlü merges the story of the inhabitants of an Aegean town and their small-town problems with that of a superhero movie to prove that, even in a universe where everyone has a superpower, the petty, basic characteristics of humanity still prevail. The film boasts some incredible set pieces (a sprawling, gorgeous scene involving a hail of rocks is particularly impressive) with terrific sound design, showcasing the work of a director who has been steadily carving his own strange path within cinema. Perhaps the criticism to direct at the film is its weak scenario – it’s hard not to feel that had &#220nlü perhaps written one more draft, the entire film might have played much stronger.

On the international front, the festival showcased some of the most anticipated films of the year – titles such as Chan Wook-park’s Stoker and Shane Carruth’sUpstream Color sold out as soon as the tickets went on sale and new screenings had to be added to meet the incredible demand. With inexpensive matinee tickets, the festival organisers ensured that most screenings were as full as possible. (A side note here has to be that the screening for Thou Gild’st the Even was sold out three times over, and there was not a single empty space in the theatre: not the seats nor the stairs nor even the doorways.)

Mikael Marcimain’s Call Girl from Sweden was another title that created much excitement among the crowd. With an aesthetic style reminiscent of both Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men (1976), and a killer soundtrack, this dramatisation of a true story weaved an intricate, elaborate tale that ensnared the entire audience within the first few minutes, and did not let go until its heartbreaking, brutal end.

As per tradition, the festival ended with the televised and much-loved award ceremony, where Lenny Abrahamson’s brilliant What Richard Did won the International Golden Tulip and Bruno Dumont won the Special Jury Prize with his historical piece Camille Claudel 1915. Thou Gild’st the Even was named best film, winning the National Golden Tulip award, while Asli &#214zge won best director for her brutal examination of the disintegration of a middle-upper class marriage in Lifelong. The Special Jury Award in the national competition was presented to Derviş Zaim, who, with his new film The Cycle, continues to explore forgotten branches of Turkish art and history, reflecting these through modern storytelling. The Seyfi Teoman award for first film went to Deniz Akçay Katiksiz with the promising Nobody’s Home, while the Fipresci jury chose to award Bruno Dumont and Onur &#220nlü. Ziad Doureri’s The Attack was picked as the winner of the Human Rights in Cinema section, bringing the festival to a close.

Representing a terrific opportunity for audience members, professionals, journalists and filmmakers to come together in cinematic joie de vivre, the Istanbul International Film Festival continues to raise its own bar, attracting incredible talent and films each year, while fast becoming one of the unmissable film events of the festival calendar.

Evrim Ersoy

Sitges Film Festival 2012

Sightseers

Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia

4-14 October 2012, Sitges, Spain

Sitges website

Now in its 45th year, Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia once again turned a small corner of Spain’s Costa Brava into a mecca for genre fans. Creating perhaps what is the most comprehensive and detailed snapshot of horror, fantasy and science fiction in 2012, the festival featured over 200 movies as well as retrospective screenings, star introductions, masterclasses and much, much more.

Blessed with balmy October weather, this quaint little town in Spain played host to some of this year’s most anticipated titles from directors such as Dario Argento, Rob Zombie and Joko Anwar. Below are some of the high and low points of the festival.

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012)

Ben Wheatley continues his ascent with this fantastic comedic character study starring the fantastic Steve Oram and Alice Lowe. Beginning with two slightly awkward new lovers embarking on a road trip and warping into something unexpectedly darker, Sightseers is continuing proof that Ben Wheatley is one of the finest directors working in the British industry right now. Special mention must go to the script, written by the leads, which is so astutely observed and full of brilliant character moments that it is destined to join the ranks of British classics of the decade. Add a killer soundtrack and you have one of the definitive films of 2012. A must-see.

Sightseers is released in the UK by StudioCanal on 30 November 2012.

Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier, 2012)

A quiet, reflective comedy drama, Robot & Frank features a terrific central performance from Frank Langella as well as able support from reliable performers such as Susan Sarandon, Jeremy Sisto, Liv Tyler and James Marsden. Set in the near future, where robots have become everyday tools, Robot & Frank focuses on Frank, a retired cat burglar who is slowly succumbing to dementia. When his son brings a medical robot to take care of him, Frank is resistant at first. However, slowly but surely a bond begins to emerge, culminating in in Frank’s desire to do one last job. Lightly wearing its science-fiction elements, Robot & Frank is a low-key marvel of emotion; human, gentle and humorous, this is a film that rewards investment in its characters and creates a believable, well-crafted world.

The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2012)

Juan Antonio Bayona, the talented director of The Orphanage (2007), returns with The Impossible, a well-made but somewhat overwrought drama focusing on a family trying to survive the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. Eyes firmly on an Oscar nomination, Naomi Watts gives her all as the matriarch of the family, who is determined to survive until she is sure her son will not be left alone, while Ewan McGregor portrays the sturdy father of the family with just the right amount of pathos. However, the real bulk of the acting plaudits must fall on the three children ably portrayed by Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast. With meticulous performances, the three kids manage to strike almost no false notes. As impressive and emotionally engaging as The Impossible is, high-strung Hollywood melodrama derails the film more than once. The most poignant points in the film are the low-key moments but a desire to constantly hammer home the tragedy means most of the mood is generated by effusive violins and sentimental string-pulling.

Modus Anomali (Joko Anwar, 2012)

Joko Anwar is one of the most talented genre directors right now. The fact that he is working in Indonesia – a country where horror cinema is generally not very innovative – makes this achievement doubly impressive. Although never blessed with the high budgets that most US productions get, Anwar’s films regularly display inventiveness and intellect, which is sorely lacking in the rest of the genre. With Modus Anomali, Anwar worked with an even smaller budget, turning out a truly indie feature, and the result is all the more remarkable. Focusing on John Evans, an amnesiac who wakes up buried alive, Modus Anomali tells the story of his attempts to find and rescue his family from the hands of an unidentified maniac. Largely shot on shaky cameras, but always allowing the audience to see what is happening, the film is a clever puzzle that will divide audiences. Suffice it to say that those who get on board will find themselves amply rewarded as Modus Anomali has been thoroughly thought-out and will stand up to repeated viewing. All in all, a remarkable achievement and further proof that Joko Anwar is headed for great things.

Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia, 2012)

One of the most upsetting and uncompromising films ever to come out of India, Miss Lovely tells the story of two brothers working in the seedy underbelly of Indian exploitation cinema in the 1980s. Blessed with stellar performances from all involved, the film depicts the inhabitants of the world the brothers live in: financiers, gangsters, club owners and, of course, the performers. The roster of characters seems to come from a human cesspit. With all morality corrupted and all human goodness sapped, these are brilliantly engaging monsters, all consuming each other in a desire to get to the top. It is a sad, melancholic and destructive portrait of a scene unfamiliar to most Western audiences. Never once compromising its raw emotional brutality during its running time of less than two hours, Miss Lovely builds to a climax that grabs you by the throat and does not let go until you are completely choking. Guaranteed to remain with you for months after the film ends, Miss Lovely represents a new step for Indian independent cinema that is to be encouraged, applauded and, most importantly, shown to audiences.

The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, 2012)

Rob Zombie creates what might be the worst and yet most entertaining film of the century. For the most part, The Lords of Salem plays like some misguided homage to John Carpenter, recreating some of unforgettable shots from The Fog (1980), until the final third becomes an LSD trip of exaggerated proportions with some of the craziest imagery known to mankind since Alejandro Jodorowsky made El Topo (1970). It is a ham-fisted attempt by Zombie to create something cerebral, which, instead, is more like an expensive Christmas panto for which there is no justification. Grand in its mediocrity, The Lords Of Salem is a recommended to anyone who wants to discover the madness of the witches of Salem. By the time the final quarter rolls, you will be aghast at the madness of the imagery with which Mr Zombie decides to bombard the audience.

Come out and Play (Makinov, 2012)

A retelling of the 70s classic Who Can Kill A Child?, Come out and Play is a lacklustre, almost shot-for-shot remake that goes nowhere. Lacking in atmosphere and suffering from a hysterical performance from one of its leads, this handsomely shot film will only impress those who have never seen the brutal, sun-soaked images of the original. Perhaps the best part of this disappointing exercise is the lovely credits and the fact that the film gets dedicated to the martyrs of Stalingrad at the very end.

Yellow (Ryan Haysom, 2012)

A special mention must go to Yellow, a neo-giallo short that has been doing the festival rounds for a while. An astute tribute as well as a clever updating, Yellow is a promising start for a clearly talented team, including director Ryan Haysom, cinematographer Jon Britt, composer Anton Maiof and production manager Catherine Morawitz. Perhaps the only problem with Yellow is a desire to over-explain the narrative; the film works incredibly well as a mood piece and an unnecessary plot development late in the film somewhat undermines its impact. However, this is a minor complaint in a piece that is clearly head-and-shoulders above most of the shorts produced today.

Evrim Ersoy

On the Margins: The Cinema of Trent Harris

Rubin and Ed

Raindance Film Festival

26 Sept – 7 Oct 2011

Apollo Cinema, London

Raindance website

Trent Harris, who was the subject of a retrospective at the 20th Raindance Film Festival, is not the sort of filmmaker you expect people to know: operating on the margins on of US indie cinema since the early 90s, he’s the kind of figure whose work can justify the use of terms like ‘cult’ and ‘underground’. And although his films might not be easily available to the casual viewer, unlike other ‘underground cult’ works , they all easily engage the audience: humanistic portraits of unusual individuals marginalised by society ; unusual characters whose stories might have never been heard had it not been for the astute ear of this director.

In Rubin & Ed, Trent Harris focuses on two characters who personify everything that he’s interested in: mystical and the esoteric clashes set in what Marlon Brando called ‘Palookaville’ as the titular duo go on an unexpected journey into the desert to bury a frozen cat. The story is not the thing here – it’s slight, whimsical and frankly feels not-all-that-important. It’s the characters. Rubin and Ed might be kooky and weird but they’re also very real: the way they interact with each other , the way they talk all adds up to something mainstream films lack: a soul.

In his next film, Plan 10 from Outer Space Trent Harris attempts something on a much larger scale: a conspiracy theory comedy steeped in the Mormon history and Masonic lore, it’s a funny, fast-moving film that takes no prisoners. The warped logic of Trent Harris’s world is not one that alienates: the audience never feels as if they’re listening to a private joke that does not make sense. Focusing on Lucinda (played perfectly by Stefen Russell), who, through the Plaque of Kolob, discovers an alien plot to dominate the world, the film takes satiric pot-shots at any subject it can think of – add in a few musical numbers, a brilliant dance sequence and some B-movie special effects and you get a thrill ride that is hard to refuse.

The next film Trent Harris made might be his best known work – strangely enough it’s also his earliest. Shot in 1984 and 1985, The Beaver Kid Trilogy is made up of three short films: a documentary and two fictional recreations of the same story. It’s the film with which Trent Harris made a splash at Sundance and yet today, it’s as obscure a title as one can hope to find perhaps due to its unavailability on any home video format.

The original Beaver Kid was Groovin’ Gary –a young man from Beaver, Utah, whom Trent Harris runs into in the parking lot of Salt Lake City News. Gary is a vivacious and lively character: seeing Harris’s camera he immediately launches into a series of impersonations: John Wayne, and Sylvester Stallone as Rocky. He has the sort of manic energy that could power entire continents and he comes across as an intriguing, if slightly odd individual.

After their initial encounter Gary writes a letter to Harris inviting him to a local talent show he’s putting on in Beaver. What happens after this is too good to ruin: suffice it to say that Harris’s ability to identify and understand marginalised individuals clearly shows here.

The next two shorts that make up the rest of The Beaver Kid Trilogy are Harris’s attempts at recreating that important encounter with famous actors – the first one has Sean Penn taking the role of Gary, while in the second it’s Crispin Glover. It’s a fascinating experiment and one that works: Harris uses each segment to build on what really occurred: making a narrative change here, adding a slight variation there. It’s like a composer trying out different approaches to the same tune and it’s an incredible experience to watch. It’s not hard to see why the film was such a success at Sundance.

The Cement Ball of Heaven, Hell and Earth continues Harris’s fascination with the individual: this time it’s Aki Ra, a former child soldier Khmer Rouge who now spends his time defusing mines in his free time to redeem himself for his previous acts. It’s a fascinating story and Harris tells it well: within the 54-minutes running time he manages to combine a mystical view of Cambodia’s violent history with the very personal story of Aki Ra and not lose his way.

Perhaps this is why his newest film, Luna Mesa, does not work: Harris tries to turn the camera on himself and explore mystical and philosophical ideas head-on through a fictional narrative. The result is an unmitigated mess. The film comes across as pretentious and dull, and in contrast to his previous work it’s hard to see what he’s aiming for other than a sounding profound. The story of Luna never appears to be more than the aimless wandering of a spoilt woman, and the connection with the divine, which occupies the last quarter of the film, feels less like universal insight than boring twaddle.

However, Luna Mesa cannot undermine the body of work of a man who over the past 27 years has challenged the norms of what is accepted as independent cinema: by focusing on the marginal, Harris, like others before him, has captured people invisible to the rest of society. His ability to create without judgement and with a terrific sense of humour (as well as an inexplicable obsession with hubcaps!) is a sign of a master craftsman at work: a first-class filmmaker.

Long may he continue to make films!

For more information on Trent Harris, please visit his website.

Evrim Ersoy

Film4 FrightFest 2012

V/H/S

Film4 FrightFest

23-27 August 2012, Empire, London

FrightFest website

Film4 FrightFest the 13th duly delivered on blood, thrills and controversy with a blast of the best and the worst of current horror film. Evrim Ersoy reports on some of the most talked about films in this year’s programme.

V/H/S

An interesting exercise in combining the portmanteau picture and the found-footage genre, V/H/S is the new offering from some of the hottest indie directors on the block (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence).

Following the usual genre rules, it sets out a wrap-around concerning a bunch of deadbeat guys who are hired to break into a house and find a certain VHS for an undisclosed amount of money. As they are faced with a mountain of tapes, their attempts to find the right one are the pretext for the other stories until the very final tale, which, in an unusual touch, explains the nature of what has gone before.

At two hours, the film outstays its welcome by at least one segment and the wraparound is a muddled affair delivering none of the punch expected from such a tale. However, despite all this V/H/S works very well, with some of the segments genuinely inducing a sense of dread and unease while others create a videotape reality that just delights with its own twisted logic.

The final story also pulls out all the stops making sure the entire anthology ends on a high, sending the audience out into the night feeling as if they’ve been through on a ghost ride.

All in all, definitely worth catching – although not necessarily at the cinema given the lo-fi specs.

Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the 70s

Director/writer Mike Malloy’s love letter to the underrated poliziotteschi genre of the 70s is an impressive magnum opus that not only serves as an introductory lesson to newcomers but also offers in-depth analysis that every lover of the genre will delight in.

Compiling clips and new interviews with cast and crew associated with the films, Mike Malloy divides his epic documentary into chapters explaining various aspects of the genre (beginnings, real-life crime, politics, misogyny, etc) and revealing the history bit by bit. This fragmentary approach works incredibly well: rather than alienate any audience member, Mike Malloy sensibly draws everyone in before weaving a tale of an era so madcap and unusual it’s almost impossible not to be enthralled.

Mike Malloy’s talent is apparent not only in the assured pacing but also in the well-conducted interviews with stars, directors and other crew members of the era: Henry Silva, Franco Nero and Enzo Castellari all make an appearance bringing with them some unusual tales that may never have been heard if not for this film.

An amazing achievement, this 137-minute bonanza is a brilliantly entertaining documentary: full of life and action, it’s a joyful tribute that fits the spirit of the genre it celebrates so well.

Tower Block

A disappointing exercise in survival, James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson’s Tower Block focuses on the residents of the 31st floor of a block of flats who find themselves the target of a sniper. As the incompatible bunch try to work together to survive the day, their numbers continue to dwindle.

Boasting a set-up that’s bound to intrigue, Tower Block unfortunately runs into the first of its many problems before long: the occupants of the tower block of the title all appear to be archetypes. Perhaps it’s writer James Moran’s intention to populate the floor with a microcosm of Britain and try to see how we all can work together, but, on screen, the entire cast appears theatrical and robotic and the relationships and dialogue are distinctly wooden.

However, there is also much to be admired in the film: the set pieces are incredibly tense, and once the action gets going, the stark terror caused by the sniper is shown without any compromise. This is a film that delivers on the visual front with plenty of gusto. Shame, then, that the final result ends up being so uneven: a third act descent into Scooby Doo territory and really does the rest of the film no favours. By the end of the film, we’re left with a sense of disappointment at the hollowness and emptness of the plot.

It’s hard to shake off the feeling that Tower Block might have worked better as a 30-minute short. In its current form it is just another forgettable urban thriller in a long line of low-budget British films.

Tower Block is released in UK cinemas on September 21 by Lionsgate.

Tulpa

It’s hard to tell where Federico Zampaglione’s disappointing attempt to create a neo-giallo film went wrong: Tulpa is such a strange creation full of conflicting moments that it becomes impossible to distinguish the individual good and bad points after a while.

Opening with a beautiful sequence where a bizarre S&M meeting between an unnamed man and a woman goes horrifically wrong, Tulpa centres on Lisa Boeri, a corporate financial analyst in a fast-paced cut-throat company by day, and a member of a mysterious club for spiritual and psychical release of a sexual kind at night. When someone starts to murder Lisa’s sexual partners she realises there’s a psychopath out there who has her in firmly in their sights.

While the murders in Tulpa adhere beautifully to the giallo tropes, the pacing is so uneven that any enjoyment to be gleaned from the film soon turns to boredom. Add to this a second half that grinds to an almost complete halt and it becomes impossible to understand who the film is intended for: giallo enthusiasts will not find enough visual pleasure to enjoy the film while genre newcomers will be bored stiff after a while by the awful script and the rather outrageous dubbing.

A huge mess of a film, Tulpa can only be recommended as a guide to what not to do when trying to make a neo-giallo. Here’s hoping that Mr Zampaglione’s next film fulfils the promise of his first feature Shadow and confirms him as a filmmaker to follow.

Maniac

Set across a dreamy and melancholic cityscape, Franck Kahlfoun’s take on William Lustig’s notorious 1980 shocker might well be the best genre film to be released this year.

Shot largely in first-person P.O.V., it features an intense performance from Elijah Wood, who manages to portray Frank as a man both frighteningly sadistic and heart-breakingly pitiful. Frank works as a mannequin restorer and seller at a dilapidated shop in LA, which used to belong to his promiscuous mother. He has uncontrollable feeling of abject hatred and fear of women, which explode in acts of unparalleled violence. When Frank meets Ann, who wants to use his mannequins in a photography exhibition she’s preparing, the two connect in an awkward but not implausible way. However, as their relationship develops, it becomes harder and harder for Frank to control his destructive impulses.

Utilising mirrors, windows and other reflective surfaces, Khalfoun creates a glossy but emotive visual language: while the horror of Frank’s barbaric acts is never underplayed, his character comes across as a tragic figure rather than as the one-dimensional psychopath that is the stereotype of the genre. Cleverly using the soundtrack to intensify the city and Frank’s experience, Khalfoun grabs the audience when they least expect it: added into the mix are the rare appearances of Elijah Wood’s face, his eyes exhibiting a dead, hollow quality that makes his acts even more disturbing. His voice-over, delivered in a child-like whisper, speaks volumes about a man whose life has been lost for a long time: reminiscent of the protagonist Paul in Tony Vorno’s forgotten grindhouse gem Victims, Frank is equal parts abhorrent murderer and unexpected victim.

It’s hard to think of another piece of filmmaking that will manage to pack the same visual invention and emotional punch into a measly 89 minutes. Do not miss.

International Istanbul Film Festival 2010

Istanbul at Night - Photograph by Mitesh Parmar

International Istanbul Film Festival

3-18 April 2010

Istanbul Film Festival website

Nestled between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is undoubtedly one of most fascinating cities in the world – combining the sensibilities of both continents, it’s an exciting and constantly surprising cosmopolitan city with a rich vein of history. Istanbul is also a very vibrant arts capital: the city is awash with festivals, exhibitions, concerts and plays all year round – and perhaps the crowning event is the International Istanbul Film Festival.

The festival showcases the best of both mainstream and independent cinema for an intense and very exciting two weeks every April. It provides an excellent opportunity for foreign visitors to explore Turkish cinema with a selection of the best new productions, as well as restorations of classic (and sometimes thought to be lost) Turkish films. It also introduces audiences to important directors and actors/actresses and gives the prestigious Golden Tulip Award every year to one international and one national production, alongside the FIPRESCI Prize and the Council of Europe Award.

Here are some of the stand-out films from the festival, including the award winners:

The Misfortunates (De helaasheid der dingen)

(Winner of the international Golden Tulip)

Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere, Belgium’s entry for the Oscars last year follows the story of young Gunther Strobbe, who lives with his father, three uncles and his grandmother. While the male members of the house waste their days away drinking heavy quantities of alcohol, chasing loose women and getting into bar fights, Gunther tries to find his own role within this eccentric and decidedly odd household. Director Felix van Groeningen captures the stark brutality of growing up in what can only be described as unusually appalling conditions. The Strobbe Clan are like overblown, grotesque versions of characters from a Mike Leigh film. Their aspirations are inexistent, and it seems that Gunther might be destined to follow into the same kind of dead-end life. The film is exceptionally simple and yet walks a thin line between pathos and humour as it paints a portrait of an extremely dysfunctional, yet endearing family. The performances are stellar and Kenneth Vanbaeden, Valentijn Dhaenens, Wouter Hendrickx and Johan Heldenbergh shine as older members of the Strobbe family. Although there is no distribution deal for the film in the UK so far, one can only hope that it won’t be long before this small and charming masterpiece arrives on our screens.

Vavien

(Winner of the national Golden Tulip)

At once idiosyncratically Turkish and yet marvellously accessible to any foreign audience, the Taylan brothers’ third film delivers on the promises made in their previous feature. Borrowing heavily from the films and tone of the Coen Brothers, they create the darkest of comedies in a quintessentially Turkish setting. Engin Günaydin, who also wrote the film, stars as Celal, a hapless electrician whose business and marriage are not going so well. In love with a cheap ‘pavyon’ singer from Samsun, Celal decides the solution to his problems lies with his wife Sevilay’s secret stash of money, sent by her father from Germany. A devious plan slowly hatches in Celal’s mind whereby he can solve both his problems with one single act. Reminiscent of Fargo in mood and action, Vavien is a pitch-black comedy. The growing desperation of Celal, his attempts at wooing Sibel, and Sevilay’s abrupt conversations with her dad in Germany, are all played straight, and yet the humour never gets lost, thanks to an intelligent and well-written script. Special mention must also go to Serra Yilmaz, who, in spite of her short screen time, manages to steal every scene she is in. A must-see for any lover of intelligent and unique cinema, Vavien is also an indication of the new standards established within Turkish cinema.

Ajami

(Council of Europe Film Award)

Already screened at the London Film Festival to great success, Ajami holds the unique honour of being the result of a collaborative effort between Scandar Copti, a Palestinian, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli director. The film is set in Ajami, a tough neighbourhood in Jaffa populated by Jews, Arabs and Christians, and tells five different but interconnected stories using a daring narrative structure reminiscent of Amores Perros. The fact that the film was made using a largely non-professional cast also serves as a testament to the raw power the directors manage to extract from their material. At once a tough crime drama and a powerful statement about life in the multi-ethnic neighbourhoods of Israel, Ajami is an admirable effort using exceptional cinematographic language to tell an exceptional story.

I Killed My Mother

(People’s Choice Awards)

Canada’s bid for the Oscars in 2010, Xavier Dolan’s semi-autobiographical film is one of the most emotionally honest and refreshing stories to emerge in years. Focusing on gay teenager Hubert and his tempestuous relationship with his mother, for whom he feels both guilt and contempt, Dolan’s feature debut explores the myths and mysteries of adolescence in an unexpectedly direct, amusing and emotional way.

Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque)

Almost as creative and outrageous as its subject matter, cartoonist Joann Sfar’s debut film based on his graphic novel covers the entire gamut of Serge Gainsbourg’s life, from growing up in 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris through to his death in 1996. Filled to the brim with Gainsbourg’s unique compositions, the film easily sidesteps the usual traps a biopic can fall into, instead creating an amusing and breathtaking ride through its never-felt 140 minutes. Eric Elmosnino’s performance as the titular character is exemplary, effortlessly bringing Gainsbourg’s charm and cool to the screen.

Phobidilia

A daring and unusual effort from Israeli directing duo Yoav Paz and Doron Paz, Phobidilia is a modern take on the horrors of the everyday world. After suffering an emotional breakdown in a public place, an unnamed young man vows never to leave his apartment: much to his delight, he quickly discovers that in today’s world all his needs can be met easily within the four walls of his apartment. But four years later, his idyllic existence comes under attack from two figures: Daniela, a free-spirited girl who barges into his life, and Grumps, the building’s real estate agent. But the young man is not willing to let anyone take his comfortable existence away from him. Both claustrophobic and visually inventive, the debut feature from the duo behind a number of exceptional music videos shows real talent. Add to this a script that dares to ask some very unusual, some might say controversial, questions and you have the makings of a genuinely transgressive film.


Kosmos Gala - Photograph by Mitesh Parmar

Kosmos

Following on from the success of My Only Sunshine, which played to great acclaim in the London Film Festival last year, Reha Erdem moves further into more inexplicable and fascinating territory. His new film tells the story of a thief who can work miracles. He arrives in an unnamed, snow-covered border town weeping and immediately rescues a boy from drowning. The townspeople look upon the thief as a wise man, but a sudden rash of robberies and his honest declaration that he is looking for love make them suspicious: in a short time the atmosphere becomes electrically charged. Erdem’s film explores the mystical and the unexplainable through a universal story set in one small town. Magnificent visuals aided by an intriguing story, and what is perhaps the best sound design of any film in the last 20 years, elevate Kosmos to a new level of filmmaking. Bound to create as much hatred as love and fuel many discussions, Kosmos represents the sort of European cinema that we seldom get to see.

Space Tourists

Christian Frei’s new documentary takes the audience into a fascinating world full of wonder and surprise. Using breathtaking imagery as well as magnificent music by Jan Garbarek, Christian Frei tells the story of Anousheh Ansari, who was the first tourist in space after paying $20 million for the privilege. Her story is juxtaposed with the many other intriguing people who revolve around space travel, from Kazakh rocket debris collectors to photographers exploring abandoned Russian cosmonaut villages. The film is constantly surprising, unexpected and a delight to watch. Christian Frei was awarded the well-deserved Sundance World Cinema Directing Award in the documentary category this year.

Deliver Us from Evil (Fri os fra det onde)

Ole Bornedal returns to the big screen with another re-imagining of the genre film, just as he as done before with science fiction in The Substitute and film noir in Just Another Love Story. Taking the basic idea behind Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Ole Bornedal twists and reshapes the story into something surreal, disturbing and very, very unique. The film opens with Lars, a drunken failure, running over the town’s saintly figure, Ingvar. Although he is racked with guilt, he finds an easy solution in blaming the crime on the local Bosnian refugee Alain. Ingvar’s partner Frederik is furious – Ingvar was his only connection to the real world and the only person who could control and subdue his violent rage. The one person who stands up for Alain is Lars’s brother Johannes, who has recently moved back to town with his family. When he rescues Alain from being lynched by the mob and retreats to his place, an angry and vicious group lays siege to the only home he now knows. The results are both deadly and tragic. Featuring a blistering final 20 minutes, this film confirms Ole Bornedal’s credentials as a major filmmaking talent.

A Town Called Panic (Panique au village)

Based on the Belgian animated cult TV series, A Town Called Panic is perhaps the wackiest, most surreal comedy anyone can hope to see this year.
When Cowboy and Indian want to make a surprise homemade gift for Horse’s birthday, little do they know that their efforts will result in the destruction of their entire home and all their belongings. What is even stranger is that the events bring them face to face with an alien race who lives in the centre of the world and whose aim is to steal anything precious. A surreal, mad, hilarious and completely irreverent adventure ends up engulfing not only Cowboy, Indian and Horse, but also their neighbours, the postman and even the local police. With basic stop-motion animation and some of the most charmingly insane characterisations ever seen on the screen, this is the kind of film that reminds you of the power of comedy. It’s no surprise that the film won the Audience Award at Austin’s prestigious Fantastic Fest last year, as well as the Best Animated Feature award at Sitges 2009.

The Trotsky

Actor Jacob Tierney’s second directorial effort focuses on high-school student Leon Bronstein, who believes himself to be Leon Trotsky. After starting a strike at his father’s factory during a summer job, Leon finds himself quickly exiled to public school by his father. However, Leon’s instinct for revolution is not easily thwarted: this move gives him an even bigger cause than before – to prove that his fellow students matter to his arch-nemesis, the Stalin-like Principal Berkhoff. Witty, warm and exceptionally acted, The Trotsky comes across as a beautiful and thoughtful combination of Election and Rushmore. Hiding a serious message under its surface, this might be the best teen comedy to come out of Canada in years.

Evrim Ersoy

FRIGHTFEST 09 ROUND-UP

Triangle

FILM4 FRIGHFEST

27-31 August 2009

Empire Cinema (London)

FILM4 FRIGHFEST HALLOWEEN ALL-NIGHTER

31 October 2009

ICA, London

Programme on FrightFest website

TRIANGLE

Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 October 2009

Distributor: Icon

Director: Christopher Smith

Writer: Christopher Smith

Cast: Melissa George, Michael Dorman, Liam Hemsworth, Rachael Carpani

Australia 2009

99 mins

PONTYPOOL

Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 October 2009

Distributor: Kaleidoscope Entertainment

Director: Bruce McDonald

Writer: Tony Burgess

Cast: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak

Canada 2008

93 mins

For its 10th anniversary year, London’s horror film festival, FrightFest, relocated to the sumptuous location of the Empire cinema, which holds court over Leicester Square from its central position on the North side of the square. This gave the festival its most prestigious venue yet, showing there’s money to be made in horror films even after a decade of increasingly uninventive entries in the genre and offered the fans a huge main screen for the main programme as well as a more intimate downstairs screen for the ‘discovery’ strand. The building also has a foyer with sofas, which made it a lot easier for ticket buyers and filmmakers to hang out between the screenings and chat about what they’d just seen.

This convivial atmosphere contributes to the feeling you get at FrightFest that a significant amount of the audience comes back every year to resume friendships and conversations they can perhaps only enjoy online the rest of the year. The foyer certainly was always a hive of activity with radio and TV interviews being recorded in one corner and a merchandise stall in another offering fans the chance to have posters signed by the likes of John Landis whose American Werewolf was screening at the festival.

Aside from the domination of zombie movies in the line-up, there was also a definite Nazi theme this year: they were included in the plot of a quintet of films, from the sins of the (grand)father trope in Millennium: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to the mad scientists of The Human Centipede and Shadow and of course the Nazi zombies in Dead Snow plus the blink and you’ll miss it cameo of monstrous storm troopers in one of American Werewolf‘s dream sequences. The Nazi leitmotif was even commented on in the short comedy films that had been made especially for the festival and accompanied some screenings. If Quentin Tarantino can find box office (Nazi) gold in the subject, we shouldn’t begrudge others the same on a weekend that was only a week shy of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

Like all film festivals, there were so many titles in the line-up that of course not all were guaranteed to be great and some rested on the reputation of their stars or earlier career of their directors, but even when the films proved to be so bad they elicited laughter from the audience – Dario Argento’s Giallo, for example – the experience of watching a horror film with an audience of appreciative genre fans on a massive screen made it worthwhile…

Here’s to another 10 years of FrightFest.

ALEX FITCH

In anticipation of FrightFest’s Halloween extravaganza, we review some of our personal favourites from this year’s festival, two of which are out in UK cinemas in October.

Triangle (released Oct 16)

From the director of Creep and Severance comes a satisfyingly chilling thriller in which a young woman is caught in a circular nightmare and is led to go through the same events over and over again. Although anyone who saw the excellent time-travel Spanish thriller Timecrimes may have an unpleasant sense of déjà vu, Triangle offers enough genuine tension and striking images as well as a real sense of existential claustrophobia to make the audience forget that the plot is not only derivative but also sometimes a little muddled. Melissa George gives a fantastic, intense performance as the woman in trouble and infuses the film with emotional depth. VIRGINIE SÉLAVY

Pontypool (released Oct 16)

In 1938, Orson Welles created a radio adaptation of his British namesake’s The War of the Worlds, which famously ‘panicked’ America into believing Martians were invading their fair shores. Pontypool updates and subverts that idea by having the observers of a zombie-like outbreak hole up in a radio station and stay on air to inform other possible survivors about the situation, leading to a phone call from an incredulous BBC World Service reporter and the dissemination of a possible cure over the airwaves. In my opinion, this was the finest film of the festival, showing how you can create a haunting atmosphere with a small cast of great actors and an intriguing, infectious premise. Appropriately, the recorded soundtrack of the film was broadcast, with slight alterations, as a radio play, which works almost as well without the visuals. At a Q & A after the screening, the producer said a sequel was on its way and since the plot of Pontypool is based on only one page from the out-of-print novel it’s adapted from, I’m fascinated to find out what happens next. ALEX FITCH

The Human Centipede

Danish Artist Tom Six has managed to create a truly original horror film with his bizarre, off-the-wall, yet touching The Human Centipede (the First Sequence). Focusing on the effort of Dr Reiner to create a human centipede using three unwilling volunteers, Six infuses the film with a Cronenberg feel while managing to retain the human drama rather than focusing on gross-out moments. Actor Dieter Laser as Dr Reiner is a true revelation – a mad doctor clearly inspired by Udo Kier. The film is a staggering success, and one can only hope Six manages to go ahead with his intended sequel for which he promises even more bizarre action. EVRIM ERSOY

Trick ‘r Treat

Released after a two-year hiatus, director Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat may be the only true successor to Halloween in creating an ode to a the celebration of fright that can viewed every year. Taking his cue from the portmanteau pictures of Amicus as well as EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt, Dougherty brings a fresh angle to the genre by using a fractured timeline à la Amores Perros. Strong performances from actors such as Brian Cox ensure that the acting is well above average while the stories send the necessary shivers up the spine. The mischievous sack-headed figure of Sam, hovering around the edges of the film and keeping a vicious eye on the proceedings, might be the new Halloween icon for a new generation. A delight to watch and a future classic! EVRIM ERSOY

Alex Fitch, Evrim Ersoy and Virginie Sélavy

The Film4 FrightFest All-Nighter takes place on October 31 at the ICA Cinema, London: six UK premieres featuring poltergeists, vampires, zombies, mutants, backwoods monsters and an incredible torture show! More details on the FrightFest website.

FILM4 FRIGHTFEST 09: ZOMBIES GALORE

Dead Snow

Still from: Dead Snow

Film4 FrightFest

27-31 August 2009

Empire Leicester Square, London

FrightFest website

In its 10th year, Film4 FrightFest now resides in the Victorian grandeur of The Empire on the North side of Leicester Square. Like all festivals, its line-up is dictated by the films released in time for the event, and for this reason, the programme of FrightFest 2009 is not as exciting as last year’s. However, for the first time the festival is showing films in two screens simultaneously, which means they are able to offer their largest selection to date as well as repeated screenings.

The last decade has seen a general lack of innovation in horror and has been marked by waves of various sub-genres following the release of a particularly popular film, as with J-horror for instance. The re-emergence of zombie films shows no sign of abating and the festival includes screenings of the micro-budget British film Colin, the slightly larger budget Canadian effort Pontypool, the Norwegian living dead Nazi movie Dead Snow plus Zombie Women of Satan, not to mention Infestation and the short films Deadwalkers and Paris by Night of the Living Dead. Remakes, re-imaginings and sequels are also present with new versions of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) and the cult 80s film Night of the Demons being screened; Dario Argento revisits his favourite genre in the new movie Giallo, which was written for him to direct by fans of his career and the festival closes with the belated sequel The Descent 2, which has a lot to live up to if it is to be anything like the excellent first instalment.

2005 and 2006 saw marathons of classic films at the festival; George Romero’s original zombie trilogy preceded screenings of Land of the Dead and Day of the Dead 2: Contagium in 2005 while the year after a Hammer triple bill was introduced by Mark Gatiss. It’s a shame these screenings of classic films haven’t continued, but at least this year includes a remastered version of An American Werewolf in London (1981) accompanied by cast and crew on stage, which follows the feature-length documentary Beware the Moon. Appropriately, the director of Beware the Moon was born the same year that American Werewolf was first released! (ALEX FITCH)

Here are some of the highlights of this year’s festival:

Pontypool: One of the most intelligent and experimental horror films in recent years. Making full use of its one-location set-up, Bruce McDonald’s film focuses on ‘shock jock’ Grant Mazzy (brilliantly played by Stephen McHattie), a character who has been kicked off the Big City airwaves and now works at the only job he could get, hosting the early morning show at CLSY Radio in remote Pontypool, Canada. What begins as another boring day covering school bus cancellations due to yet another snow storm turns into something much more dramatic when reports of horrendous acts of violence start piling in. Before long, Grant and the small staff at CLSY find themselves trapped in the radio station as they discover the root of the insane behaviour taking over the city. Turning a great many genre conventions on their head, Pontypool is one of the most literate and ambitious zombie films in recent years and the climax will certainly divide audiences’ opinions. (EVRIM ERSOY)

Heartless: After a long hiatus, reclusive artist/director Philip Ridley returns to the big screen with possibly his most mature and moving work. Building on the themes that he explored in his previous films, The Reflecting Skin (1990) and The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995), Heartless focuses on a young man with a large heart-shaped birthmark on his face, who discovers that he can see demons roaming the streets of East London. Taking its cue from ambiguous horror-dramas like Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Heartless‘s basic premise slowly opens up to reveal an intricate and touching plot. With stunning performances from the lead Jim Sturges, as well as British stalwarts Timothy Spall, Eddie Marsan and Ruth Sheen, Heartless is a truly haunting experience. (EE)

Dead Snow: Following Nazi vampires in Frostbiten (2006) and 30 Days of Night (2007), Nazi zombies return to the big screen for the first time in a generation since Shock Waves (1977). The zombie genre has changed considerably since then, with some of the most notable recent examples combining the appearance of the living dead with black comedy. Dead Snow is no exception, referencing Evil Dead II (1987) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) specifically, with a subplot lifted from John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980). As another ‘zom-com’, Dead Snow is very successful when the action gets going – the large number of ashen-skinned Nazis set against the bleak snowbound setting is impressive and memorable, not to mention the director’s obsession with entrails. However, the first half of the film is a stereotypical and tedious teenagers-on-holiday set-up, which leaves you counting the minutes to the first explicit zombie attack. (AF)

Infestation: A terrifically enjoyable giant bug movie that sees the inhabitants of a quiet North American city (actually Bulgaria, should viewers be confused by the atypical woodlands that form the setting of the climax) knocked unconscious by a mysterious noise and light and waking up in cocoons patrolled by giant insects. The unusual premise, which combines classic British science fiction like Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later with a tense climax inspired by Alien, is a terrific mix of comedy, slapstick (but often cruel) violence and engaging characters. The second feature by Kyle Rankin, who directed the indie comedy The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003), sees the filmmaker reunited with genre veteran Ray Wise and brings a great ensemble cast to the screen plus memorable creatures including giant spider/zombie hybrids. I, for one, hope the cheeky cliffhanger that ends the film leads to a second instalment. (AF)

Appropriately for a festival in its 10th year, the line-up is overall both fresh and nostalgic. Heartland and Infestation are must-sees while Colin and Trick ‘r Treat promise twists on the familiar elements of the genre. A new Clive Barker adaptation, Dread, is welcome and there are high expectations for Triangle and The House of the Devil, made by the directors of the excellent Severance (2006) and The Roost (2005) respectively. When catering for fans of a particular genre, festival programmes can be a mixed bag, but there’s certainly an intriguing and varied selection of films showing at this year’s Film4 FrightFest, ensuring there’s bound to be something that’ll scare and delight even the most jaded horror fan.

Alex Fitch and Evrim Ersoy

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews