Double Take: The Disappearance of Alice Creed

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 April 2010

Venue: Vue West End (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Cinema NX Distribution

Director: J Blakeson

Writer: J Blakeson

Cast: Gemma Aterton, Martin Compston, Eddie Marsan

UK 2009

100 mins

J Blakeson’s feature debut is a taut, low-budget British thriller about two men, Danny and Vic, who kidnap a young woman named Alice. As they wait for the ransom, locked together in a small flat, tension mounts and details emerge about who they are. The relationship between the three characters develops in unexpected directions as they all try to manipulate the situation to their advantage. Below, Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy discuss the film and what it shows about current British filmmaking.

Pamela Jahn: What I liked about the film is that, for what it was, a hostage story, it was pretty tight and well performed. But there were some twists that were beyond plausibility, and I thought it started more strongly than it played out in the end.

Virginie Sélavy: The way that some of the revelations about the characters were brought on showed that the plot was weak. They just felt like a cop-out, like a way out of the plot that Blakeson had built. They weren’t really justified in any way and were quite unconvincing as a result.

PJ: The opening scenes where Danny and Vic set up the kidnapping and take Alice to the flat were really tense and really good. You don’t know the motivations behind Danny’s weird behaviour at first.

VS: That’s true, the beginning is excellent because it’s very sparse, it doesn’t explain anything. The two men are very purposeful and they are brutal without hurting her, which is very unsettling and very effective. You don’t quite understand what’s going on.

PJ: But then I found the first twist laughable. Alice’s reaction wasn’t worked out properly.

VS: I expected the film to be cleverer, but in the end what you have is yet another film that focuses on a female victim who is stripped naked and humiliated, but is not smart enough to get herself out of the situation. Although she is constantly trying things, she doesn’t make anything happen - everything happens outside of her control. That annoyed me, and I know this is partly to do with my own expectations, but I don’t think you can have just another female victim film without having a little bit of a twist, so that she’s more than that.

PJ: Yes, I totally agree, but given the fact that she is under so much pressure I think that at least it’s realistic. I thought her character was convincing in the way that she tries to get out of her situation.

VS: But did you think that she was an interesting female character?

PJ: No.

VS: That’s my point. Danny is probably the most interesting character because he’s manipulative and complex and you can’t quite figure him out, whereas she just reacts to situations. She’s a very passive type of character. I expected more of a battle of wits, which I don’t think you really get.

PJ: What annoyed me more was that it became predictable, that I could actually foresee the end. In terms of the characters, I thought what was interesting is that Danny seems weak at the beginning and he turns out to be quite strong. And even though I didn’t have as much of a problem with Alice as you, I think it’s a bit of a shame that Blakeson did not put more effort into creating her character. He does concentrate on the two guys and their relationship a lot more, but she’s just the victim, she doesn’t have to be anything other than that.

VS: I think the other problem in the film is the way information is revealed.

PJ: It’s quite clumsy.

VS: Yes. I always remember what Hitchcock said about suspense and surprise, and in this film Blakeson went for surprise. If he had given his audience more information about the characters, he would have been able to create much more effective tension by making the audience aware of what is being played out in front of them. That said, the relationship between the two men is better dealt with, there is a more interesting power struggle between them.

PJ: Absolutely. That’s because Blakeson keeps things simple - one location, three characters - it’s a different sort of tension that keeps the film together and makes it enjoyable.

VS: I did find it enjoyable in spite of my reservations. I think for a first feature film with a very low budget, they did well. The kidnapping set-up was a good idea to justify the one location, which is so important to keep the budget down. But the problem I have with it, and in that respect it made me think of Exam, which is also a one-room low-budget British thriller, is that these new directors try to make films that they can sell, and as a result I think that there is something a bit formulaic about them. Ultimately, they are fairly empty films because they don’t really have much to say. They seem to make a film for the sake of it, rather than because they have something to say or show. But maybe this is a step for those first-time directors towards making the film they really want to make - I hope so.

PJ: One of the reasons for this might have to do with the funding. They have to show that they can make a film within a tiny budget that looks good and is saleable and not too controversial.

VS: Yes, the funding is the problem. Of course you have to be realistic when you make your first film, but you have to have a story to tell, not just a narrative device that is a pretext to make a film.

PJ: They may not be empty, but they’re flat. A lot of these films pretend to be interesting but they’re not thought through properly. In both films, there are probably one or two twists too many, which keep the audience going, but are too obvious.

VS: You could have done something more interesting with the power games in this scenario, but Blakeson doesn’t really explore that deeply enough. The film doesn’t tell you anything of substance about the dynamics of power in this triangle, because of all those twists.

PJ: In terms of the performances, I thought Eddie Marsan was the best one. He’s totally convincing as Vic, the older kidnapper, and I can take all the plot twists that involve him because of his performance. I think the performances carry the plot to a certain extent. Whenever the plot weakens, there is still a fantastic quality to the acting and it keeps you interested to the end.

Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy

Valley of the Bees

Valley of the Bees

Format: DVD

Release date: 22 March 2010

Distributor: Second Run

Director: FrantiÅ¡ek Vlí¡čil

Writers: Vladimí­r Kí¶rner and FrantiÅ¡ek Vlí¡čil

Original title: íšdolí­ včel

Cast: Petr &#268epek, Jan Kačer, Věra Galatí­koví¡

Czechoslovakia 1968

97 mins

The Czech director Frantisek Vlí¡čil is best known to audiences outside his native country for his 1967 masterpiece Marketa Lazaroví¡. His following film, Valley of the Bees, is also set in the 13th century, and was made using some of the same costumes and actors as its close predecessor, although it’s far from being a sequel. It is at once a simply told tragedy and a stinging critique of ideology, oppression and the loss of free will, ostensibly during the Crusades. Filmed in the spring of 1967, but released a year later during the Prague Spring, it seems inevitable that the Soviet forces that invaded Czechoslovakia later that year would view the film as an attack on communism.

At the height of summer, in idyllic, rural Bohemia, bees buzz in and out of their honeycombs while a young boy hides away in their midst. His aristocratic father is marrying a young girl barely older than his son; when the boy, Ond&#345ej, frightens his new mother with a macabre wedding gift, his father attacks him in a fit of rage. Instantly terrified that he may have killed his only son, he promises to dedicate Ond&#345ej to God if his life is spared.

Forced to join the Order of the Teutonic Knights to uphold his father’s vow, Ond&#345ej is bound by a rigid code that decries any bonds with family, forbids any contact, even visual, with women, and demands total subjugation to both God and the Order. They are violent, merciless monks who believe in a vengeful God, preferring to throw a treacherous brother to the baying hounds than practise forgiveness. They are crusaders battling for the soul of Christianity, rich in their power to sow fear and obedience in the hearts of the peasants outside their monastery walls.

There is nothing merciful about the monks, their humanity stripped away by their unquestioning devotion to dogma. Ond&#345ej, bound to the earth rather than the heavens, is determined to escape and return home. He is pursued all the way by the fanatical, yet charismatic crusader Armin von Heiden, who prays as much to his sword as to God, and carries with him sand from the deserts outside Jerusalem where he was defeated. He genuinely, passionately believes that Ond&#345ej’s soul can still be saved despite his treachery; but touched by madness, Armin’s idea of salvation when he finds Ondrej is truly horrific.

Vlí¡cil’s 13th-century Europe is a sparse, barren and violent place. But rather than evoking the darkness so often associated with the Middle Ages, the beautifully composed black and white cinematography is luminescent, and despite the director’s formal style, the visuals are modern, at times even abstract in their austerity. While the landscape is bleak and uninhabited, there is something poetic in the way that the rolling fields and waves crashing against the monastery’s shore are captured by František Uldrich’s camera.

While not nearly as epic in scope as Marketa Lazaroví¡ (which was named the best Czech film of all time in 1998), Valley of the Bees is a visually stunning, hypnotic and disturbing film that has managed to remain totally relevant, stylistically and politically.

Sarah Cronin

Online Movies: Stingray Sam

Stingray Sam

I discovered The American Astronaut (2001) while channel-hopping late at night, and the broken space, skewed songs and weird world-building suited the dark. For months I’d floundered for descriptions, eventually settling on ‘It’s Blade Runner meets Rocky Horror via Clerks‘. But in the strictest sense I hadn’t actually been channel-hopping. I started coming across 10-minute fragments of the film on that online grindhouse YouTube, alongside the usual slew of dogs on skateboards and music videos: the universal guilty pleasures of the internet.

American Astronaut‘s writer-director Cory McAbee seems to appreciate that. Approached by the Sundance Institute to create a film that could be viewed on mobile phones as easily as in cinemas, McAbee put together a six-part singing and dancing space-Western: Stingray Sam (2008). According to the theme song (oh yes, it has a theme song), Stingray Sam is not a hero: he (played by McAbee) is, in fact, a lounge singer on Mars, which now resembles a washed-up Vegas-in-space. One night, old friend The Quasar Kid (Crugie) arrives at his saloon, looking for Sam’s help to rescue a little girl. And so their adventures begin!

To find out more, go to the Stingray Sam website, where you can watch all six episodes.

(The exclamation mark is important. Stingray Sam is narrated like a classic serial, each chapter closing with a stirring request to ‘Tune in to the next episode!’, an instant call-back to the matinée era. David Hyde Pierce provides that voice, authoritative while entirely gentle, helping to colour the universe around our monochrome heroes.)

(Parentheses are important too: so much of Stingray Sam‘s texture comes from the comic diversions and interludes that pepper each episode. When you reach the end of each 15-minute chapter you realise you’ve watched very little plot; instead you’ve seen a stream of ideas pour from the screen, each suggesting the possibility of another tangential story that would be just as entertaining, just as strange. It’s YouTube again, or wikipedia, where education and misinformation bleed together on the whims of the hyperlink.)

Stingray Sam screened at Sci-Fi London 8. Sci-Fi London 9 runs from 28 April to 3 May at the Apollo Cinema in London.

Despite the fragmented narrative, the heart of the film is a flushed whole, a story about fatherhood amid chaos that’s truly warming. In episode five, as the girl (played by the charming Willa Vy McAbee) drifts off to sleep, Sam and The Kid sing her ‘a lullaby song’ that skitters along the same path of patchwork verses and awkward rhymes that, I hope, everyone will recognise. It isn’t a stretch to see the McAbee family assuming such roles, with Cory building his crazy world of B-movies and dance routines while struggling to find the space to be the father he wants to be.

SCI-FI-LONDON has announced its 48 Hour Film Challenge, which is open to everyone in the UK: the Challenge takes place on the weekend of 10-12 April. Participating teams register online at Sci-Fi London and then attend a briefing at one of 4 cinemas in the UK or receive information by text message. The rules are very simple: Sci-Fi London give you the TITLE, some DIALOGUE and a PROP list on the morning of Saturday 10 April and you have 2 days to make a complete 5-minute science fiction film. More details on the Sci-Fi London website.

I watched chapters on a mobile, a laptop and a television, and it would be disingenuous to suggest there isn’t a difference: the depth of field really suits a large screen while the soundtrack never sounds better than when it bounces around headphones. But the infectious narrative and cast of misfits suit every platform, and for the first time in a long time I find myself idly clicking through videos and blogs, knowing I could be in danger of stumbling over art somewhere in the jumble.

Matthew Sheret

Watch episode 1:

Double Take

Double Take

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 April 2010

Venue: BFI Southbank, Curzons Mayfair, Wimbledon (London) and key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Johan Grimonprez

Writer: Tom McCarthy

Cast: Ron Burrage, Mark Perry

UK 2009

80 mins

Scroll down to watch the trailer

Somewhere in Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s film - a vast montage of Hitchcock’s television appearances, Cold War footage and coffee commercials - is an adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges story by art world luminary and novelist Tom McCarthy. Borges described meeting his younger self in ‘The Other’ and returned to the idea in ‘August 25, 1983’. Here it is Alfred Hitchcock who meets the 1980s version of himself during the filming of The Birds in 1962, which leads him to plan the perfect murder. ‘If you meet your double, you should kill him, or he will kill you,’ one tells the other.

This war between doubles is mirrored in the cultural tensions of the late 50s and early 60s. In the dialectic battle for supremacy we have: communism v capitalism, television v cinema and instant v ground (coffee that is). Hitchcock is an odd (but somehow perfect) choice around whom to build such a film - a seeming mass of contradictions who fails to add his weight decisively to either side of any argument. To him the Cold War was a handy plot device, a MacGuffin. Soviet agents, like the Nazi spies in Notorious (1946), or even the birds in The Birds, were simply the faceless danger to set the plot in motion. In the latter film, the apocalyptic fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis is stripped of any political content and turned into an animal class war (aves v mammalia). And yet, in contrast to the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, it is a film that seems to invite allegorical readings. Is mankind’s faltering position at the top of the evolutionary tree a reflection of the Red Peril or perhaps even of cinema’s battle for the biggest share of the market place with television (that smaller, less intelligent but more numerous and successful upstart)? Among the highlights in Double Take is some excellent footage of Vice-President Richard Nixon defending his country in a ‘good-humoured’ debate with First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev: we may be losing the space race, he argues, but we have colour television.

Although it would take some years before television began to gain artistic credibility, the small screen was by the early 60s commercially (in America at least) whooping ass. And with the advent of colour it must have seemed that cinema’s days were numbered. Although Hitchcock appears to sneer at the new technology - there is a great joke about adverts being specially placed throughout the programme to stop the audience from getting too involved - he was, as always, adaptable - after all, he had already made the move to sound, to colour, to widescreen and even shot Dial M for Murder (1954) in 3D. And with Alfred Hitchcock Presents and its follow-up The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (the hilarious intros from these make up the bulk of Hitchcock’s appearances in this film), he became for a while more famous, certainly more recognisable, as a television host than as a director of films.

It seems that in Double Take Grimonprez is not really interested in Alfred Hitchcock the artist - there is no mention of voyeurism or the manipulation of the audience that dominate other studies. The Master of Suspense is reduced to a figure of his time - as much a 2D representation as the famous line drawing from his TV show. And yet this is somehow refreshing. Perhaps because he is ‘cinema’s greatest artist’, his art has dominated discussions and the socio-political context of his films has been often overlooked. This may also be because Hitchcock himself was as disdainful of when and where his films were set as he was of the plausibility of his plots. And yet he was forever setting his films amid contemporary political turmoil; the Cold War itself serves as background for both Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969).

Read our Reel Sounds column on the Psycho soundtrack.

It must also be said that Double Take is a very entertaining film and is at times very funny - aside from the Hitchcock intros, there is also the strange comedy double act of Nixon and Khrushchev. The pleasures the film offers are perhaps not unlike those of an ‘I love 1962’ compilation, but at the same time it is intelligent and complex with enough layers of reality to rival the Curb Your Enthusiasm ‘Seinfeld’ episode; we see the actor and Dead Ringers star Mark Perry practising Hitchcock’s voice and reading from Truffaut’s interview book (based on recordings made in 1962) and celebrity look-alike Ron Burrage, who shares a birthday with the filmmaker, posing with Tippi Hedren.

For those who need reminding of history’s relevance to the present we also have the true story of a plane crashing into the Empire State Building in 1945, among other references to 9/11. But such forced links are hardly necessary; we still have a capitalism v (Chinese) communism conflict; television and cinema are now both fighting a battle with newer media; but Folger’s ground coffee is still a bestseller stateside and, ‘as good as fresh perked’ or not, the instant variety remains as popular as instant tea in Britain. Perhaps what is genuine and authentic will prevail if only we can recognise it.

Paul Huckerby

Watch the trailer:

Film writing competition: Careful


Electric Sheep Film Club

Venue: Prince Charles Cinema, London

Every second Wednesday of the month

In connection with the Electric Sheep Film Club at the Prince Charles Cinema every second Wednesday of the month, we run a film writing competition in which film students and aspiring film writers are invited to write a 200-word review of the film on show that month. The best review is picked by a film professional, and Careful producer Greg Klymkiw was the judge of our Guy Maddin March competition. The prize for the best review is publication on the Electric Sheep website. We are pleased to announce that the winner is Tony McDougall. Greg Klymkiw said: ‘Good review. Remember - always ask yourself questions about everything you write. Poke and prod yourself. Answer your own questions. It can make for very good copy.’

Here’s Tony McDougall’s review:

Careful is a film out of its time. Guy Maddin uses techniques long since forgotten from old school cinema to create a fascinating and truly unique movie. Maddin successfully employs such methods as damaged film, sudden cuts, excessive make-up as well as over-dramatisation when it comes to the acting to create a surreal masterpiece. Any nostalgic feelings are limited to the aesthetic quality of the movie as the taboo subject matter of incest would never have featured in the visually similar films of yesteryear. The story takes place in a 19th-century French village in the Alps where all the residents are afraid to make any noise in case they start an avalanche. This dominant fear that casts a shadow over all the villagers causes high anxiety among them, which we see when the lead character is told to put his name on his toothbrush before there is an accident. This is a brilliant metaphor for the world we currently live in where the most mundane of tasks seems to involve some sort of risk. This is a strictly rare movie in that it is not only evocative, but also unique and above all else relevant.

You can read more reviews by Tony McDougall on his blog.

Next screening: Wednesday 14 April – Battle Royale + Q&A with anime expert Helen McCarty. More details on our events page.

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland

Format: Cinema (3D + IMAX)

Release date: 5 March 2010

Distributor: Walt Disney

Venues: BFI IMAX, Odeon Leicester Square (London) and nationwide

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Linda Woolverton

Based on the novels by : Lewis Carroll

Cast: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway

USA 2010


In Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, up is down and down is up in a satirical inversion of the real world, of literature, of maths and puzzles. In a suitably Carrollian scenario, I’ve found myself agreeing with the point of view of a right-wing columnist in the Mail on Sunday whose work I normally despise. In Peter Hitchens’s one-paragraph dismissal of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, he wrote: ‘We live in the age of deconstruction and the post-modern. Burton… appears to have turned [Alice] into Willy Wonka meets Lord of the Rings.’ Unfortunately I think he’s right, and Disney’s new live action adaptation may come as a surprise to audiences familiar with the studio’s 1951 animated version of the story. This is not to say that Tim Burton’s made a bad film, more that this is a missed opportunity.

This new adaptation is both a reimagining of, and sequel to, the Alice novels. I suppose audiences shouldn’t be too surprised that this is a film aimed at older audiences than the single-digit ages the original Disney Alice was made for, as even Burton’s most child-friendly films as director/producer - Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, The Nightmare before Christmas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - had a level of darkness and subversion to them. However, the delight in whimsy, ideas and neologisms that typifies both the original novels and the Disney cartoon only appears infrequently here, which is a shame because the parts of the film that are faithful to the original story show that Burton could have made the definitive live action version. The Alice adaptation everyone was expecting in the 00s was an even darker sequel based on the computer game American McGee’s Alice - to have been scored by the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson and directed by Wes Craven. Burton’s Alice is halfway between American McGee’s Alice and Disney’s original. It’s aimed at teens rather than tweens, and it features an early scene showing Alice gored by a razor-mouthed and clawed Bandersnatch, which has an eye plucked out by a mouse wielding a rapier.

In conjunction with the release of Tim Burton’s new film, BFI Southbank are presenting the many previous adaptations of Alice in Wonderland in March. More information on the BFI website.

While fans of Disney’s original Alice may be dismayed by this Fighting Fantasy approach to the material there are still plenty of lines of dialogue from the original intact and the CGI rendering of anthropomorphic animals - talking horses, frogs and dogs - is the most impressive I’ve seen on screen so far - although bizarrely the CGI rendering of humans on horseback looks like the jerky movements of marionettes, which makes you wonder why they didn’t use real stuntmen. The technical necessities of converting the film into 3D mean there is a lush primary-coloured hue to many of the characters and scenes - except when Burton goes into goth mode and juxtaposes the familiar characters with dark, monochromic backgrounds. However, many scenes have an incongruous roaming camera designed to accentuate the 3D thrills of the cinematic presentation and the conversion into 3D has necessitated the blurring of backgrounds, limiting the tools of wide-angle lenses and long-shots available to the cinematographer. In terms of sets, costumes and characters, Alice is a more rewarding film than the recent Avatar, where the incomprehensible budget was tempered by the very average imagination and plot. Alice, of course, even when made needlessly dark for this adaptation, is fuelled by one of the most outlandish imagination in Victorian fiction and it’s terrific to see this rendered by the latest technology on the highest resolution - IMAX - format possible.

The greatest strength of the film is the acting, with Alan Rickman voicing a louche Blue Caterpillar in the centre of a terrific British-centric cast that includes Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall and Burton favourite Christopher Lee as the voice of the Jabberwocky. While Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are reasonably entertaining, though perhaps becoming over-familiar and overused in Burton’s films, Mia Wasikowska is a terrific adult Alice, a rebellious debutante and ingénue who becomes a thoughtful woman and reluctant warrior over the course of the film. With such performances, it’s noticeable that the scenes centred around humans - the awful pomp and ceremony of a 19th-century engagement party at the beginning, the hilarious prosthetic-wearing retinue of the Red Queen - are actually some of the best in the film. In contrast, the sword and sorcery subplot shoehorned into the narrative sits uneasily with the original characters.

This a film of various beginnings - Carroll, Disney, 21st-century computer games - and endings - an armour-clad Alice in a dark wasteland fighting a Jabberwocky only marginally less scary than Terry Gilliam’s and an invigorated Alice back in the real world, making the most of the British Empire. The first ending closes a world I wouldn’t particularly want to return to, the other one opens possibilities I’d be happy to see Burton explore further…

Alex Fitch

No One Knows about Persian Cats

No One Knows about Persian Cats

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 March 2010

Venue: Curzon Soho (London) and key cities

Distributor: Network Releasing

Director: Bahman Ghobadi

Writers: Bahman Ghobadi, Hossein Mortezaeiyan, Roxana Saberi

Original title: Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh

Cast: Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad

Iran 2009

106 mins

Scroll down to watch the trailer

Bahman Ghobadi’s exploration into the world of underground music in Tehran is a welcome antidote to the blasé, pedestrian, apathetic state of the music industry in the West. While we gorge ourselves on MP3 downloads and bit torrents to a point where music is seen as a free commodity, made virtually valueless by a virtual world, in Iran, any acquisition, enjoyment or creation of music (especially Western music) is forbidden by the authorities. So as the film follows a couple of indie kids (Ashkan and Negar) trying to form a band by meeting different musicians around the city, they’re not just chasing the rock’n’roll dream, they are fighting for their lives.

No One Knows about Persian Cats is an interesting hybrid of drama infused with truth, although it could easily have been a documentary. The director’s passion for music saturates every frame of the film and he even appears in the opening scene singing in an underground studio, which sets the tone for the rest of the film. Amidst the drama and the perpetual sense of danger, there are some fantastic comic scenes as well as a lot of musical set pieces. At points it seems as if the whole purpose of the film is to showcase various Iranian bands, with the story being secondary. Although a lot of the music is actually quite good, with each new band or musician comes another set piece and another ‘promo video’, which sometimes seems a little obvious. Many of them feature flashing images and scenes of the darker side of city life (especially in the hip-hop scene).

Special screenings with the lead actors + a live PA with their band Take It Easy Hospital followed by a set from DJ Shahram on the following dates: March 23, Ritzy Brixton Cinema @7.30pm + March 31, Ciné Lumií¨re @ 8.00pm.

Yet this is conversely one of the most endearing aspects of the film. As Ashkan and Negar explore the depths of the underground scene, they see a surprising array of different genres, and music snobbery doesn’t get a look in. They meet a singer-songwriter with wonderfully poetic lyrics about the struggle for freedom and a heavy metal band who practise in a cowshed as they were forced out of their village; they go to a rave at a house party and meet an indie-funk band who rehearse in a space built on the roof of a building (whose neighbours constantly report them to the authorities so they keep getting arrested).

Encounters with the authorities are par for the course for these musicians. Ashkan and Negar have recently been released from prison and have been invited to play a gig in London but have no band and more crucially, no passports or visas with which to make the trip. It’s hard to believe that their twee, casio-based indie pop would rile up the authorities too much, but the mere fact that they are expressing themselves artistically and touching on subjects outside of the rigorous Iranian dogma means that they have to be very wary. Negar is even more at risk as women are forbidden from singing due to the emotions they can stir.

No One Knows about Persian Cats also screens at the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham on March 24.

Things start to look up when they meet local DVD bootlegger and all-round blagger Nader; he introduces them to a forger who can help them with visas and passports. This scene is flecked with gentle touches of humour as the old forger asks Nader for bootleg DVDs of films with more action and less romance. As every commodity is bought and sold on the black market, Nader has a good little niche for himself copying films and music from the West, and he becomes the musicians’ ally in trying to help them both escape Iran and set up a concert in order to raise funds. One of the other really masterful scenes in the film is when he gets arrested and talks his way out of a flogging, prison and a fine with quick-fire dialogue and perfect comic timing.

The film opens up a world that even most Iranians don’t know exists. These indie bands look like they’ve just stepped off the pages of the NME, yet are in constant fear of that knock on the door, and we follow them through tunnels, up stairs, down basements and back alleys as they insist on creating art and having a voice despite the dangers. The dream of going to the West, or in Ashkar’s case, of going to Iceland to see Sigur Rí³s, seems like an endless struggle when you are constantly looking over your shoulder. Despite all of the obstacles, rock music is still being created in Iran by these rebels with a cause.

This bold and inspiring film was obviously a great risk to make but it is ultimately rewarding for its audience. Recommended for all music lovers but especially to struggling musicians who should know that however tough they think things are, they can’t be nearly as bad as they are for these Persian Cats.

Lucy Hurst

Watch the trailer:

Lion’s Den

Lion's Den

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 March 2010

Venue: Curzon Soho, Odeon Panton St (London) and key cities

Distributor: Axiom Films

Director: Pablo Trapero

Writers: Alejandro Fadel, Martí­n Mauregui, Santiago Mitre, Pablo Trapero

Original title: Leonera

Cast: Martina Gusman, Elli Medeiros, Laura Garcí­a, Rodrigo Santoro

France 2008

113 mins

A woman wakes up in a trashed apartment, covered in bruises, with deep, painful scratches carved into her shoulder. In the shower, blood streams off her aching body. Still in shock, Julia (Martina Gusman) only realises hours later that two men are in the flat with her - one, her boyfriend, has been stabbed to death, the other - Ramiro, her boyfriend’s lover - is badly injured but still alive. Unable to remember what happened, she’s thrown into jail by the police, where she soon discovers that she’s pregnant.

Lion’s Den, the fifth film from Argentine director Pablo Trapero, could not be further from the exploitation films that characterised the women in prison genre in the 70s. The movie is named for the penitentiary units where women with children are housed during their incarceration. In Argentina, the children are allowed to remain inside with their mothers until the age of four, when they’re removed by the Court and either placed with a relative or in state care.

Julia finds herself in a shockingly decrepit cell. The other mothers are mostly uneducated, peasant women, in sharp contrast to Julia’s rebellious but upper-class character. Trapero captures all the gritty realism of life in prison, but the film also has the feel of a slow-burning thriller - as Julia adjusts to life on the inside, her case pits her against Ramiro (played by Rodrigo Santoro), who accuses her of being solely responsible for his lover’s death.

With her life shattered, Julia struggles with motherhood. Unable to breastfeed after her son, Tomí¡s, is born, she’s helped by her cellmate Marta, who intervenes when the baby’s cries begin to drive the other mothers and children over the edge. Older and more experienced, Marta takes Julia under her wing, eventually leading to a relationship between the two women, who manage to find some small comfort in the confines of the prison.

But the wheels of justice are grindingly and appallingly slow: Julia gives birth and raises her baby behind bars without ever going to trial. As Tomí¡s gets older and approaches the all-important age of four, Julia’s distant, beautiful and unwelcome mother (played by the singer and actress Elli Medeiros) intervenes, returning to Buenos Aires from her life in Paris to take over the role of looking after her grandson, with disturbing and dramatic consequences.

Filmed almost entirely within an existing women’s penitentiary, using real inmates and guards as extras, Lion’s Den is a deeply harrowing film. Martina Gusman, who won the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Prize for best actress, delivers a powerful performance as a determined mother who will do anything to keep her child. While the film, released so soon after Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, may not be as polished, or as entertaining as the French thriller, it is a more brutal, realistic and morally ambiguous portrayal of life in prison.

Although the film’s ending may seem a little unconvincing, Trapero never offers the audience any easy answers. We never really discover the truth behind the murder, and are left to decide whether a mother’s love for her child is more important than an innocent child’s right to freedom and a life outside prison.

Sarah Cronin

Insane Melancholy and Absurd Melodrama: The Saddest Music in the World

The Saddest Music in the World

Format: DVD

Release date: 27 June 2005

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Guy Maddin

Writers: Kazuo Ishiguro, George Toles, Guy Maddin

Based on the novel by : Kazuo Ishiguro

Cast: Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, Mark McKinney

Canada 2003

96 mins

Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World looks like it was rescued from a vault where old films were carelessly stored. It’s grainy and patchy, and atmospherically shadowy, flickering into colour occasionally and then back to icy tinged monochrome. It looks like it was filmed inside an intricate snow globe, and creates a visually perfect world for the delightfully skewed tale that unfolds - an unexpected, but seductive marriage between a Grimm fairy tale and a musical melodrama, full of sparkling one-liners.

It was made in 2003, but is set during the Great Depression in a snow-banked, freezing Winnipeg, which has been voted the world capital of sorrow for the fourth year in a row by the London Times. Lady Port-Huntley, played by Isabella Rossellini, magnificent in a cheap blonde wig and a glittering glass tiara, is a crippled beer baroness who proposes a competition. She offers 25,000 dollars to the country who can perform the saddest music, hoping that beer sales will soar as the melancholy music floods the airwaves. From across the world, musicians come to compete against one other, in pairs, their efforts commented on with radio announcer élan by the hosts Duncan Elksworth and Mary: ‘No one can beat the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats and twins.’

The Electric Sheep Film Club will screen The Saddest Music in the World at the Prince Charles Cinema on Wednesday 10 March. More details on our events page.

While the music is eerily, beautifully playing in the background, a wonderful, warped family drama takes centre stage. Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), with the moustachioed countenance of a bounder, has closed his heart to the tragedies of his Canadian past - the collapse of his mother as she sang, her death throes on the keyboard of a piano - and assumed the razzamatazz showmanship of an American producer. His current amorata Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), a charming changeling wrapped in fur, has escaped from her own personal trauma by forgetting it ever happened, living in a world of sensations, eyelashes aflutter, tender little voice breathing out a song, or a declaration of intent: ‘No, I’m not American, I’m a nymphomaniac.’ Amnesiac Narcissa is the wife of Chester’s estranged brother Roderick, played with lugubrious Deputy Dawg sadness by Ross McMillan, who is grieving for the loss of their child. Covered by a veil as black as night, and carrying a jar with his son’s heart preserved in tears, he is the entry for Serbia.

Their father Fyodor is involved too, a doctor who is hopelessly, remorsefully in love with Lady Port-Huntley. Crushed by guilt over the tragic events that left her legless, Fyodor has created transparent glass limbs filled with her own sparkling beer for his beloved. But even though Lady Port-Huntley loves her legs, and their dancing capabilities, her bitter, sharp heart, in a neat, complicated twist, belongs to Chester.

As the family circle around each other, nursing old grudges, mourning recent losses, suffering emotional pangs, Maddin creates a dark spell of a world for them to wander through, with mysterious dream sequences, funerals on ice skates, beer ads, tram rides, sleepwalkers, a carousing ice hockey team, a masked orchestra, and Chester’s perky musical numbers, which get more hectic as the competition progresses. The film crescendoes with glass shattering, pianos burning, sobriety abandoned and lovers embracing. The Saddest Music in the World is weird and wild, bold and beautiful and utterly enchanting.

Eithne Farry

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