Tuesday, 16 April 2013

[13th Belfast Film Festival] Days 2 & 3 - Watchtower, Radio Free Albemuth

Though peppered with a little variety, the majority of the films I have booked myself into at this years festival are new cinema from across the festivals of the world.

Watchtower (2012) 
(Gözetleme Kulesi)

Location - Queens Film Theatre

Director - Pelin Esmer
Country - Turkey, Germany
Starring - Olgun Simsek, Nilay Erdonmez
Running Time - 100 minutes
SynopsisA man and a woman seeking refuge from the world: Nihat at a remote forest fire tower, Seher in her room at a rural bus station. When their lives collide, each now has to fight their battle of conscience before the other.

If cinema can extract the beauty from the darkest of places, it can also sterilise the most wondrous of worlds. Where the likes of Terrence Malick brings out the most rapturous power in his landscapes, Turkish film maker Pelin Esmer finds nothing but indifference. Her underscored drama Watchtower is set within the beautiful mountain regions near capital Kastamonu, but her characters are so broken by life that they cannot see the majesty of what unfolds in front of them. 

Split between two primary protagonists, Esmer's film looks into the distances we put between ourselves and others as a barrier in the face of destruction. The first is Nihat, a middle aged man struggling to come to terms with the accidental death of his wife and child has taken a job as a forest fire scout, but cannot find the solace or isolation he needs through the constant radio chatter of his fellow co-workers. This simple and intrusive device never adds up to the critique of our boundaries that Esmer seemed to be applying, it instead offers a comforting annoyance to know that the world moves outside the dreary company of Nihat. The second is Seher, a collage girl left pregnant by the uncle who's care she was in and abandoned by her parents, who works at the bus company near the shops Nihat visits. Their interaction is fleeting, though the film cannot draw any empathy from the characters, their non-relation or their situation because Esmer fails to draw connections to each of the characters, opting only for parallels. 

Like the work of the Dardenne brothers, Watchtower is centered around a single, pivotal collision of moral obligation, of guilt and desperation. Here it comes from Seher's abandonment of her new born child, an act observed by Nihat, whom rescues the child and takes them both to his watchtower in an attempt to save them both.

Watchtower is over-encumbered by the weight Esmer adopts onto the shoulders of the audience. The flat digital cinematography does find the indifference of the main characters, but not the essence. There is so little hope to be found here, Nihat's attempted redemption doesn't come from an inner force, but from necessity. Likewise Seher finds so little compassion in herself as she nurses her child that you wonder if she is beyond help. As a meditation on nihilism and guilt, it merely wallows in the sterile, absence of beauty cast in the lonely shadow of the observation.  

Radio Free Albemuth (2010)

Location - Queens Film Theatre

Director - John Alan Simon
Country - USA
Starring - Jonathan Scarfe, Shea Whigham, Katheryn Winnick  
Running Time - 100 minutes
SynopsisBerkeley record store clerk Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) begins to experience strange visions from an entity he calls VALIS that cause him to uproot his family and move to Los Angeles where he becomes a successful music company executive.

Giving rise to some of Hollywood's most recently acclaimed  science fiction films Phillip K. Dick's stories have risen from underground to a house hold name. Though fans of the novelist   are sure to be less than thrilled when it comes to the treatment of his work, see (The Adjustment Bureo.) Still given that Radio Free Albemuth is being heralded by some as the most faithful rendition of Dick's paranoid vision of the world around him then maybe we should be more thankful of Hollywood's interference (okay, so we'll not go that far.) 

I'm being overly harsh on Radio Free Albemuth, this is clearly a love letter written on budget bog roll. First time director John Alan Simon has done his best to faithfully adapt Dick's story of meta-mechanics, authoritarian governments and paranoia into the cinematic form, but has clearly been so hampered by the budget that it loses itself in layers upon layers of text. Dick's story is most definitely suited to the written word, where in, with an understanding of the context (this was Dick's attempt at understanding a transcendental experience he had in 1974) the talk of religious alien visions and subliminal messages would be given a greater sense of place and personal exploration (Dick places himself as a figure in the novel.)

Though the actors try their best, the script is so clunky in its exposition and ideas that it comes off as undeniably amateurish. To it's credit however, the cheap look of the sets and laughable special effects do sell a strange and surprisingly textual unreality, a similar effect to that of Cronenberg's Cosmopolis from last year, only without the cinephile mastery of the art. A noble misfire, one perhaps aimed not at me but for the fans across the stars. 

Friday, 12 April 2013

[The 13th Belfast Film Festival] Day 1 - The Mask

And so it begins. 

This is the first entry in my coverage of the 13th Annual Belfast Film Festival. Over the course of the next 10 days I've booked myself into a lot of films, and I hope to find time to cover them all for you. This is something I'm pretty excited about, the range and quality of the films on show over the course of the festival is an example of how Belfast has developed both culturally and cinematically over the last couple of years. 

I kicked off the festival in the cosy bean-bag cinema, a snug and suitably low-key setting that fitted the vibe of our first film perfectly. 

The Mask (1961) 

Location - BFF Beanbag Cinema

Director - Julian Roffman
Country - Canada, USA
Starring - Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins, Bill Walker, Anne Collings
Running Time - 83 Minutes
Synopsis - A young archaeologist believes he is cursed by a mask that causes him to have weird nightmares and possibly to murder. Before committing suicide, he mails the mask to his psychiatrist, Dr. Barnes, who is soon plunged into the nightmare world of the mask.

As 3D tears its way through our multiplexes with an unsupported metabolism, each new re-release and shoe-horned gimmick come with the sense of inevitable collapse. The profits are down, the release numbers are down and the interest is down. Why? There is probably a long list of socio-economic factors that could be wheeled out in order to explain the short lived fad. Yet it is in the view of this film-school romantic that 3D is losing its numbers because its lost its fun

And here we have Julian Roffman's low budget horror-schlock The Mask which doesn't just gives us all the gimmicks and silliness, it embraces them in a wonderful meta-textual exploration of audience interactivity. 

Just as The Wizard of Oz famously opened in Black and White, before blowing the world apart in a Technicolor marvel, The Mask traps us in the two dimensional reality as the suicide of a young archaeologist launches a inquiry about a missing mask. For the first half hour the film plays out like one part Scooby Doo, one part Citizen Kane. Slowly the pieces unravel as detective and psychologist move from clue to clue but it is only when the missing mask (mailed before the archaeologist could take his own life) arrives Dr Allan Barnes desk (in a moment of pure Hitchcockian McGuffunry) that things enter the new dimensional horror promised by the films trailer. 

Tempted by the enclosed letter, Barnes dawns the mask and is immediately inflicted with horrific visions. Put on the mask! Put on the mask! Put on the mask! Rings the voice over, but really it's a warning to the audience. On goes the old school red and blue glasses and suddenly we all found ourselves in a grotesque trans-dimensional nightmare. How well these sections worked almost took me by surprise, structurally they're pretty flimsy, the don't really offer anything other than haunted house sequences intended to shock the audience with vague ties to the overarching story of ancient evil. Yet I couldn't help but give myself to them completely. It brought the audience along with Dr Barnes into a new reality, giving the effects a reason to exist and the audience a reason to interact with them. Not to mention the sequences themselves were marked by creatively devilish set design and special effects, it frequently called to mind the work of Jean Cocteau, had he collaborated with Goya. 

The Mask might be a little to dreary for it's own good, there isn't enough ham to make it's rather silly and forgettable plot all that interesting, and the acting isn't great, but it isn't terrible enough to offer up more than a few giggles. But that didn't stop it from being a joyously memorable ride on an old rickety ghost train.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

For Roger Ebert

As I write this, I imagine there are hundreds of similar posts, with similar contents, being constructed by critics, fans and well wishers throughout the web. I'm not going to repeat what has been said. You'll find so many beautiful eulogies and love letters from those that knew him, from those much more skilled than I and  from well... from Ebert himself, across the internet tonight as cinema mourns one of its most beloved characters. His death, though desperately sad given a recent post about his wish to continue writing despite the reemergence of cancer, seems like a poetically hasty end to a long and difficult battle. 

Ebert gave himself to cinema. He presented it with honesty and frankness as he searched for something, for anything in everything. He didn't find one truth, he found thousands in the works of the filmmakers he loved. But it isn't what this post is about, Ebert's writing style has been a great influence on so many critics and writers down the years but for me it was something else.  

After surgery complications Ebert's lower jaw was removed and he never spoke again. And this is where his influence on me, and thousands more is best felt, Ebert turned to blogging. On his own site he turned out reviews with a consistency that would put most to shame, despite his age and fading health. Few older critics adapted so keenly to the net as the new hive for film journalism, but Ebert made it legitimate. He bridged the gap; ushered in a new life, new style and a new generation. 

So Mr Ebert, I am forever thankful to you. Not just for your passion, not for your intelligence or your soul... but because you gave me the reason to try.  

Only one quote remains, from his review of La Dolce Vita - a film, perhaps fittingly, that I don't even like: 'There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.'

Roger Ebert

Monday, 1 April 2013

[Review] Good Vibrations - Heart Strings

Good Vibrations (2012)

Director - Lisa Barros D'Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Country - Northern Ireland
Starring - Jodie Whittaker, Richard Dormer, Dylan Moran
Running Time - 102 minutes
Synopsis - A chronicle of Terri Hooley's life, a record-store owner instrumental in developing Belfast's punk-rock scene.

Cinema has not been particularly kind nor has it been entirely accurate in the portrayals of Northern Ireland and its people. Occasionally demonized, frequently generalized, above all else we are stripped of our nature. The most recent example being Steve McQueen's artistically rendered critical darling Hunger, a methodical poem of destruction that captured the nuance in its stillness, but not the spirit and the noise of its people. Too often it is only the context, the history, the violence and its far reaching affect that is seen, not the self-deprecating wit, the passions and the unbridled hospitality.

But Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's story of home-grown legend Terri Hooley, known as the father of Belfast Punk and founder of the Good Vibrations record label and shop, are here to show the world just why Belfast was and still is a fondly remembered hot-spot for so many of music's greatest talents.

A dreamy pre-credits sequence of young Terri skipping through his idyllic rose garden and discovering his passion for music in 50s folk, before his eye is shot out by an arrow fired from a neighbourhood kid because of his father, a trade unionist, has him dubbed a 'communist.' It's an important scene, it capsulate everything the film is about - the overarching tone running through Northern Ireland during that time (and this) and the reason for Terri's miniature rebellion, all wrapped in the films delicious black wit. Good Vibrations attempts a contemporary look at 'the troubles' (a word Terri finds as equally useless as 'revolution') with home footage and newsreels scattered throughout the running time in various forms. They don't gel with the films digital look, compared to the likes of Argo in which Affleck used lenses from the time in order to create a textual political tone. But they do provide the context needed to give Terri's campaign a sense of weight most music films fail to achieve.

Terri, played with a charming energy from Richard Dormer, represents a very important and largely ignored outlook in Northern Ireland, one of political apathy born from 60s counterculture. He explains early on that he used to belong to group of political and social radicals that soon disintegrated into just two sides when the first shots were fired. This is what attracts him to the power of punk, and convinces him to produce a band he hears at a local gig. From then on in it is a roller-coaster at the expensive of his long suffering wife played by Jodie Whittaker whom is acts with saintly patience and restraint beyond the limits of my understanding. Perhaps she realizes that Terri is man of his place and time, to withhold him would be to deny the country a much needed outlet. But as he closes his hand to money, signing his bands off for no more than £500, it proves too much for her and their child, they separate  leaving him to his own destiny.

Taking the boys on tour proves a minor success, but when they're stopped by the army upon return to Belfast they are quizzed on their motives. 'You mean some of these boys are Catholics and some are Protestants?' Says the Sargent upon discovering where they all come from. 'I didn't think to ask.' Replies Terri. 'You ever think about becoming a politician?' Jokes the Sargent before waving them on their way. The real life Terri Hooley has turned down a career in politics despite avid support from a Facebook fan page, saying that 'There are enough fools in Belfast City Hall, they don't need another one.'

Though it lifts the majority of its structure and scenarios from the long history of music films, from grimy locals to music-video style montages, Good Vibrations cleverly undercuts the sub-genre by giving itself entirely to the music and saying balls to the rest. The label's only real success comes half way in through the film, with The Undertone's Teenage Kicks. What looks to launch Terri and his extended musical family into stardom is in reality, their peak. There are no false promises, no forced optimism, sometimes it is best to make do with what you can - and in that case, D'Sa, Leyburn and all the rest have got you covered.

Terri himself is beyond saving, something he accepts at the end as he takes the stage to bless his ever
lengthening guest list. His path is one of a comet in a head on collision with the earth, tailed by a relinquished passion for music and what it brings together. However localized, that is his victory, to burn up into the world with the brightest of blazes. So what is there left for him to do other an illuminate as many as he can, leading the apathetic-angst ridden Punk rebellion to the anarchy of Belfast's streets, after all, New York may have the haircuts, London may have the trousers but Belfast has the reason.

Good Vibrations has closed and reopened time and time again since its launch we are informed through a text box that sits below the last image of Terri looking down upon his followers, his friends and his people. And so it goes, and so it goes, victory is variable. But that which Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn hold is of the most triumphant order. Good Vibrations is a heart-filled ode to music, it's cross-generational, cross-national unitizing power and its ability to define and to lead an era. It is also an unapologetic chorus to the self-lead apathetic rebellion that in more ways than one, has held this country together over the years. Above all else though, and at time more relevant than any other, Good Vibrations is a love letter to the fiery heart that tears through the under belly of this fair city.