No Ugly Duckling: Black Swan

Flossie Topping reports on Darren Aronofsky’s latest from the Venice Film Festival

On hearing about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a psychological thriller set in the New York ballet, I assumed quite a departure from his last, award-winning film The Wrestler (2008) but Aronofsky claimed he saw many similarities between them – “The more I looked into ballet, I actually started to see all these similarities to the world of wrestling. They both have these performers that use their bodies in extremely intense physical ways”. Natalie Portman, who stars as the swan queen in a fictional production of Swan Lake, is said to have undergone intense physical training which can be seen in the film’s complex choreography. The film views as if you were watching the ballet, only every emotion is heightened as it uses the medium of cinema to delve further into the story. Portman’s transformation from girl into swan is frightening and grotesquely literal in its portrayal. She plays the role perfectly, from the dancer who is determined to succeed and devoted to her craft, to the perfection-obsessed performer on the verge of insanity. Her choreographer, played by Vincent Cassel, is suitably cruel and his creepy sexual advances add a corrupting slant to the dancer’s innocent world, penetrated by the pressure of the lead role and by her understudy (Mila Kunis) who pushes her towards a life of drinks and pills.

The media’s fascination with the suggested sex scene in the trailer between Portman and Kunis was commented upon in a press conference where Portman enigmatically said “Darren described it as having a sex scene with yourself, as the character undergoes a battle with her ego” and that she found the role “challenging and interesting”. When we first meet the females, their interactions are coy and reserved, but as the plot unfolds their relationship becomes aggressive and passionate as the competitive spirit of the dancers takes over.

Aronofsky has said that he is “terrified of ballet backlash” as he confidently comments on several controversial issues surrounding the industry, including the attitude towards age, with Winona Ryder playing the ageing prima ballerina driven to a bloody suicide on hearing she must retire. He also exposes the fine line between tutors who abuse their students and dancers who use sexual prowess to secure roles, as well as commenting on the array of eating disorders present throughout the company and the widespread use of narcotics, especially those with muscle relaxant properties.

The film revitalises and rejuvenates the popular ballet into a seat gripping, nail-biting spectacle. The almost unbearable tension created by Aronofsky is reminiscent of his Requiem for a Dream (2002), keeping audiences behind cages of fingers and provoking audible gasps. Not to mention the powerfully dramatic score which lingers well beyond the credit sequence. With Portman already being talked up as a serious contender in next year’s Academy Awards, Black Swan is a sure-fire hit this winter!

Black Swan is on UK release from February 11th 2011


Machete (Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis)

Robert Rodriguez’s Machete will, without a doubt, delight grindhouse fans and with every screening at the film festival sold out, is sure to be a box office success. Luckily, my trusty press pass guaranteed me a ticket and so I squeezed into the theatre at the last minute. The film follows Danny Trejo, ex-federale turned vigilante, on a mission of revenge and redemption using his sword fighting skills to slice and dice his way through the corrupt politicians (Robert De Niro) and mobsters (Steven Segal) of Mexico. The film’s all star cast brought wild applause, as well as many wolf whistles at Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez who became leather clad bad-ass babes on bikes.

Although the film was laughter dynamite, there was a political undercurrent throughout which gave a more serious note to the proceedings. Blowing up stereotypes of Mexicans to the extreme and exposing political tension over immigration laws, was done with over the top violence and side-splitting gags. Rodriguez claims that his film has created a new sub-genre of  ‘Mex-ploitation’ cinema, providing a Mexican action hero and empowerment that people need to feel proud of their Mexican roots. The film’s explosive entertainment was greeted with wild applause, as was the hint at imagined sequels Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again.

At a press conference yesterday Alba gave the impression that the team had as much fun making Machete as it is watch, saying ‘making the film was a lot of laughs. I get to play a kick-ass chick! I mean, who doesn’t want to stab a guy in the eye with a stiletto!’. Indeed.

-Flossie Topping


I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck)

Directorial debut for actor Casey Affleck is I’m Still Here, a documentary about his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix as he tries to change his career from actor to rapper. To be placed in the Out of Competition section of the festival program is an honour for first timers as this section is reserved for ‘directors already established in previous editions of the festival’ and therefore one would assume Affleck’s star status had something to do with it. Venice loves the stars.

The film has received mixed responses so far, as Affleck has kept audiences guessing whether the film is part of an elaborate hoax or not. So much of the film concerns Joaquin’s frustration in the public not taking him seriously, that as an audience you want to believe in him and see him succeed. Yet, the rap music he creates is so incredibly bad that speculation is inevitable.

In the beginning we see Joaquin as a child star and then we see him as an adult telling us how much he hates being an actor. He says he longs to create something, and hates being part of someone elses vision,  a puppet. We then see him claiming his retirement from acting in interviews and people laughing at him. You begin to feel sorry for the guy, he just wants to rap. Then the film takes a bit of a turn for the crazy and we see Joaquin spiraling out of control of his life- he looks a mess (we see people around the world wearing Joaquin; a bushy beard and sunglasses, he has let himself go), he specializes in public humiliation (wherever he goes there is a cringe worthy scene of him rapping and people laughing) and his friends abandon him ( his personal assistant poos on his face while he sleeps). Things are not good for the dude. Worst of all, hip hop ledge P.Diddy thinks his music sucks- his life is over.

I found the film hard to invest feeling in because I spent most of it thinking that it was a big hoax. However, Joaquin’s goofy stunts were often hilarious, as was his apparent belief in his own talent .  Perhaps leaving the audience wondering is the mark of a successful documentary. In any case, all eyes will be on Joaquin to see where his career turns next.

-Flossie Topping


Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame (Hark Tsui)

The year is 689 AD and the first woman Empress of China is about to be crowned. A statue is being built of Buddha in her honor, of tremendous height and with lava flowing through its centre. However, days before the inauguration of Empress Wu, people start spontaneously combusting.  An exiled detective  (Dee) is hired to solve the mystery. A strange choice as he is known for being a rebel, Dee now claims allegiance to the throne. It becomes apparent that the people who have caught fire and burned to death have been poisoned by ‘fire turtles’, creatures which only come from Infinity mountain. Detective Dee and the assistant to the Empress, must go there and find out how people are being poisoned and by whom.

The film was a true epic, filled with elaborate sets and grand martial arts sequences. It was filled with enjoyable yet impossible fighting scenes where characters flew from building to building with ease and people’s faces morphed into other faces randomly. Although I found parts of the film difficult to understand and found it hard to keep track of who was fighting who and the significance of that one in particular,  there were comedic moments- mostly ones featuring the talking deer. The film left open the possibility of sequels (although nothing has been formally announced) as it ended before a battle that had been previously mentioned.

-Flossie Topping


Ovsyanki (Silent Souls)

Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls begins in a small town in West-Central Russia where Miron, the manager of a paper mill, asks his friend Aist to help him cremate his recently deceased wife in the traditional way. The pair set out on a journey cross-country to Lake Nero, where the couple spent their honeymoon. Throughout the journey we are told of the quirky customs of this Russian town, for example, when a woman is to be married, her friends and family tie coloured threads and beads to her pubic hair. The activity is repeated upon the woman’s death.  In this way, the film was tied to its origin. However, the film also showed universality in the emotions it presented, people in mourning, people in love. There was a great sensitivity in the handling of the subject matter as Fedorchenko managed to show the fragility and beauty in human life.

Miron tells memories of his wife on the journey, how he remembered washing her hair in vodka, how she was a obiedient wife and he like that about her. Aist pretends to listen but is actually thinking about the little birds in the cage beside him and his childhood and his dead father who threw his typewriter into the sea (because to do this makes it immortal). The film managed to describe feeling in images, and in doing this, moved the whole audience to tears, and then, to a standing ovation.

-Flossie Topping


Happy Few

Another film competing for the Golden Lion is Happy Few, French romantic drama by Antony Cordier. The plot is simple, two married couples meet each other and become friends but they feel a strong attraction towards one another’s partners. The couples agree to sleep with their other halves, understanding that it won’t lead to anything serious. Since both the couples have children the sexual exploits have to be in secret. Inevitably emotions become involved and the situation becomes very difficult with a dramatic outcome. I won’t spoil it.

I found the film intense and exciting, well acted and well written, but in parts un peu unbelievable! For example in one scene Franck and Teri are lying on the sofa, having just had sex, and Teri’s husband Vincent walks in and doesn’t bat an eyelid. Then Franck says that he can only have sex if the furniture has been moved because he believes Feng Sui makes for better lovin. Then all four lovers have a lot of sex in a big pile of flour, in a barn, and then jump in the river. I was a little bemused. In my opinion, not a contender for le grand prix.

-Flossie Topping


Somewhere (Sophia Coppola)

Sophia Coppola’s Somewhere has been branded ‘Lost in Translation 2′ amongst journalists at the festival and I can see why. The similar style, characters, relationships and settings are the same, the music is by the same artist (Phoenix, whose lead vocalist is Coppola’s husband) and the resolution has a similar sombre tone. Yet, perhaps these features are what make Coppola unique, an auteur. Her father Frances Ford commented on this similarity by saying that he liked the film because it was one that only she could make, and this is what all directors should do.
The film takes place in the legendary Hotel Marmot in los Angeles, where a run down actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) goes to take time out after completing a film and ends up taking care of his estranged 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). Before her arrival his life consists of partying, drinking all day, watching pole dancers and racing his Ferrari, so when Fanning appears the film becomes more introspective and looks at the silliness of star culture. As Dorff learns how to be a father, he makes the transition from boy into man.
Coppola has said of her fascination with characters in transition, in places of transition (the movement of characters in hotels) that she finds the state very interesting and that her experience growing up around film sets, moving from place to place has been a great influence on this pattern.
Coppola has said her favourite scene in the film is one where twin strippers pole dance on a single pole, for Dorff, who has fallen asleep. Dorff commented that the character of Johnny Marco came at the perfect time in his career when he was going through a similar transition, having completed a lot of films and finding himself in a lonely place, searching for meaning.  He said that he and Coppola had agreed that Marco had shot to fame and had not always been an actor, funnily enough Dorff comes from a similar position having achieved fame in 2002 with a role as a vampire in Blade.
Coppola said of her desire to write from a man’s point of view as a wish to challenge herself ‘Its something that I hadn’t done before and I wanted to do. I wanted to see the world the morning after a night of heavy partying to show a different angle to the showbiz world we all see’. Coppola, who has recently given birth to her first child, commented that writing the film after this experience had a definite impact on how the characters developed.
I enjoyed the film but if compared to Lost in Translation I’d say Somewhere has less laughs. It’s a tough call.
-Flossie Topping


The Saint goes to the Venice International Film Festival!

The 67th Venice International Film Festival officially opened this evening with the world premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. The much anticipated thriller from the former Golden Lion winner stars Natalie Portman as a dancer in the New York ballet and Vincent Cassel as the choreographer pushing her to her psychological limits. The director has described his latest project as not a huge leap away from his last, The Wrestler, as both contain the same dramatic, competitive spirit. There is a great buzz around the film as it promises to uncover the dark secrets of the ballet company. Review to follow.

Tonight I will be going to a midnight screening of Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, a ‘mexploitation’ grindhouse styled action romp, starring Danny Trejo as a hitman taking down the bad guys.

In a press conference earlier today Rodriguez was asked if he ever takes off his cowboy hat, to which he replied ‘No. The hat stays on’. This film is a done in a style that suits Rodriguez and thus, I have great expectations for Machete.

-Flossie Topping


The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)

So the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2010 has come to an end, and so has my all-too-brief first festival experience. But the Saint’s coverage can end on a particularly high note, as I was lucky enough to see the UK premiere of The Secret in Their Eyes. The dark horse victor at this year’s Academy Awards fended off competition from the likes of A Prophet and The White Ribbon to win Best Foreign Language Film. It was also by far the busiest screening I attended at the festival, easily filling up one of the larger venues. Such attention, by both the Academy and festival-goers is well warranted: The Secret in Their Eyes is a beautiful, striking, intelligent film which continues to find new ways to impress from the beginning to the very end.

The deftness with which the opening sequence is constructed makes it clear that the audience is in for a work of impressive confidence and audacity, as Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín), a former detective, searches for a beginning to his novel. Drawn to write about a 25 year-old case of a vicious rape and murder, never truly resolved, Benjamin seeks inspiration from his old friend and colleague Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Vilamil), and as he recalls the details of the case, he soon becomes obsessed with finding an ending to the story.

The film has plenty stand-out moments, from a frenetic chase scene at a football stadium to the final, unconventional revelation, all played out in thoroughly believable fashion. There are also more than enough laudable performances to go around. Darín and Vilamil are the centre of the film, convincingly playing the same characters across a gap of 25 years, but it is Guillermo Francella as Benjamin’s frequently inebriated co-worker Pablo Sandoval who impressed me the most; Francella is the source of many of the funniest moments in the film, but also some of the most moving and profound. Backed by such performers, and the skill of his cinematographer, Félix Monti, director Juan José Campanella has been able to weave together a film of compelling narrative and thoughtful contemplation on justice and human passion.

The Secret in Their Eyes is due out for general release in the UK on 13 August 2010.

James Williamson



I’m not entirely sure what drew me to see Postales. Possibly it was an attempt to seek something different after the concentrated Germanic intensity of the previous day. Or else I was intrigued by the setting of Cuzco, Peru: a city nestled in the mountains at 3,400 metres above sea level, and once capital of the Inca Empire. Either way, it was a good decision, for Postales is certainly something quite different. Taking its name from the postcards Pablo (Guimel Soria Martinez) hawks to tourists, the film follows the encounters he and his older brother Jano (Alan Cuba) have with two young and privileged Americans visiting Cuzco with their parents, the 10 year old Mary (Nadia Alexander) and her elder sibling Elizabeth (Megan Tusing).

The story takes a surprising amount of the film’s relatively short run time to get into gear, but it would be churlish to complain when this slow-open showcases what is arguably Postales’ central strength, its connection to its subject. The director, Josh Hyde, has been working on various projects in Cuzco since 2003, making Postales the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of experience and personal investment for Hyde and his compatriots. Though made for a budget of “less than $1 million,” if time is money then Postales is one of the richest productions at this year’s EIFF.

More immediately striking to the casual viewer, however, is the casting of untrained inhabitants of Cuzco as the local characters. I was immediately reminded of Slumdog Millionaire, and the child actors who themselves came from the Mumbai slums. But here the decision serves a further purpose, as the contrast between the locals and the trained American actors authenticates the collision of worlds. The film does not shy away from the misunderstandings and violence that result from such a collision, but there is also an infectious eagerness and optimism.  When, after the film, Hyde talked of meeting the street kids in Cuzco, he talked of their unexpected joy, which remained in spite of all their hardships, and it is ultimately that joy which lies at the heart of Postales.

James Williamson


My Words, My Lies – My Love (Lila Lila) & Gravity (Schwerkraft)

Our coverage of the Edinburgh International Film Festival resumes with the UK premieres of two German films, both dealing with young men who attempt to find escape from their mundane lives. My Words, My Lies – My Love stars Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds) as David Kern, the self-described “perfect waiter,” invisible to everyone. This goes especially, David laments, for women. So he engages in a traditional male activity: lying to impress a girl. But when he passes off a discarded manuscript as his own work to the literary-minded Marie (Hannah Herzsprung), David accidentally stumbles into critical acclaim. Barely able to do public readings from his own novel, David’s problems multiply when Jacky (Henry Hübchen) appears, claiming to be the original author, and begins to take over David’s life.

As one attendee pointed out in a brief Q & A session with director Alain Gsponer, it would be easy to draw parallels between this and Brühl’s 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! whose plot also revolves around the idea of living a lie. For me, the more interesting comparison is with the other film I happened to see that day. Gravity follows the story of bank employee Frederik Feinermann (Fabian Hinrichs) who, after witnessing one of his clients commit suicide, finds himself unable to continue living his old life. Following a chance reunion with Vince (Jürgen Vogel), an old school friend trying to go straight, Frederik descends into a world of violence and criminality, dragging Vince back down with him. Superficially, there would seem to be little resemblance between the two films. On the one hand there are the romantic comedy charms of My Words, My Lies – My Love, and on the other the brutal satire of Gravity. Never, reason would suggest, the twain are likely to meet.

But it would be a disservice to both films to pigeonhole them so neatly. Gsponer shows considerable skill in blending the rom-com elements of My Words, My Lies – My Love together with a more melancholic side. Meanwhile, Maximilian Erlenwein, writer/director of Gravity, managed to raise frequent laughs from the audience, while never dispelling the discomfort he cultivates. The two directors clearly have different goals in their productions, but perhaps as a result of seeing Gravity immediately on the heels of My Words, My Lies – My Love, I couldn’t help but get the sense that they were approaching the same ideas from different viewpoints. Both David and Frederik seek to gain something more out of life. David attempts to find it by getting close to Marie, and gets more than he bargained for. Frederik tried the romantic route and failed; relinquishing to the primeval urge to do violence becomes, in his view, the only recourse.

Both speak to the same reservoir of anxiety and dissatisfaction, though the situations, the characters, and the moods of the two films remain quite distinct. And while I enjoyed them both, it is Gravity that makes the greater impression, for its riveting depiction of what happens when that reservoir bursts.

James Williamson


Toy Story 3

It takes quite a lot to motivate me to get out of bed at 6.00am on a Saturday morning. What’s that? The first UK press screening of Toy Story 3? Hmmm, yeah, I think that ought to do it! Fifteen years since the original Toy Story charmed audiences worldwide, Disney Pixar’s latest film is undoubtedly this summer’s most hotly anticipated release. Just as the kids who first met Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) are now in their late teens or early twenties, Andy is all grown up and ready to head off to college. The inevitable bedroom clearout results in the toys being left in a black bag which Andy’s mum mistakes for trash and the new adventure begins. I’m not going to go any further than that in regards to plot synopsis. Part of the reason I enjoyed the film so much was the fact that I didn’t know what was coming next and I wouldn’t want to spoil that for anyone.

A word of advice – don’t look out the original films on VHS before going to see the latest instalment. It must be at least eight years since I have seen either Toy Story or Toy Story 2 and my experience of Toy Story 3 was all the better for it. Like Andy, I felt I had moved on, but I have come to realise that I will never be too old for Toy Story. The characters are all so familiar, it just feels like revisiting old friends that you haven’t seen for years.

Everything Pixar touches seems to turn to gold. A rat with a passion for cooking? Preposterous! Yet somehow it works. They have an unparalleled ability to make films that appeal to adults and children alike and the animation bandwagon shows no signs of slowing down. The audience of largely middle-aged journalists which surrounded me was frequently in hysterics and they’re not exactly the easiest sort of people to please. This was the last film I saw at the EIFF 2010 and it was the undisputable highlight of my time in Edinburgh.

Ross Dickie


And Everything Is Going Fine

To be honest, I had no idea who Spalding Gray was before I saw this film and decided to give it a chance on the sole basis that it was directed by Steven Soderbergh. Born in 1941, Gray was an actor and writer who found his artistic niche in the confessional monologue. His subject matter was diverse, ranging from comical observations on life to darker themes of suicide and depression. Having read Gray’s book, Impossible Vacation, Soderbergh thought the monologist would be perfect for his 1993 film King of the Hill and cast him in the role of Mr Mungo, a man “ruled by regret”. Throughout his life Gray was forced to battle with the spectre of clinical depression, a condition shared by his mother who committed suicide at the age of 52. In 2004 he disappeared. His body was found on the banks of the East River the following March.

Pieced together from a series of clips and interviews, And Everything Is Going Fine – a film which owes its title to one of Gray’s greatest monologues – is Soderbergh’s homage to a man he considered as a friend. Fittingly, there are no retrospective interviews with family members or co-stars: it is Gray, and Gray alone who holds the audience’s attention for the 89 minute duration. His unique style of monologue lends itself particularly well to documentary filmmaking and Soderbergh deftly weaves segments together to form an engaging narrative of Gray’s life. The Oscar-winning director takes a humble backseat approach in this film and allows Gray’s talent to do the talking.

There is undoubtedly something haunting about Soderbergh’s latest project, not least the parallel he drew between Gray and Mr Mungo, a character who is eventually driven to suicide. In spite of this, the film is above all a heart-felt tribute to a man who talked about himself for a living, yet he did so in such a way that it was impossible to take your eyes off him. And Everything Is Going Fine serves as a record for a talent which should not be forgotten.

Ross Dickie


22 Bullets (L’Immortel)

Revenge films are predictably formulaic in so far as they usually involve the kidnap of children and the needless murder of a family pet – it’s never going to end well for the guy that kills the dog. 22 Bullets is no exception to the rule, aside from the fact that it’s French and not American. Played by the coolest Frenchman ever (Jean Reno), Charley Mattei is a retired marseillais gangster who is dragged back into the murky world of the Mafia when he is shot – that’s right; you guessed it – 22 times in an underground car park. As the film’s French title suggests, our hero manages to survive against the odds and proceeds to hunt down those responsible. And oh yeah, there’s also a maverick cop who doesn’t get on with her boss and is determined to get to the bottom of all this bloodshed. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

It might seem like I’m being overly critical of Richard Berry’s latest film but it’s really not that bad. Sure it’s formulaic, but at the end of the day it’s a formula that works. The casting and cinematography are also noteworthy and Reno gives one of his best performances since Léon. I frequently found myself on the verge of really liking this film and then Mattei would go and ruin it by speeding off on a motorbike, providing the audience with a token car chase.

22 Bullets, a French gangster movie, was always going to be up against it in light of the Oscar nominated A Prophet (Un prophète), a film which is frequently mentioned in the same sentence as The Godfather. Although not as subtle as Jacques Audiard’s film, Berry succeeds in proving that it is possible to create a big action blockbuster outside of the Hollywood enclave. At the end of the day it’s a pretty good version of what it is: a pop-out gangster/revenge flick which is likely to hammer A Prophet at the box-office.

Ross Dickie



For some reason, comedian Ben Miller – better known as half of the double act Armstrong and Miller – has decided to try his hand at filmmaking. Nominated for this year’s Michael Powell award, Huge tells the story of two aspiring comics known simply as Warren and Clark (Johnny Harris and Noel Clarke respectively). Obsessed with Morecambe and Wise, the two cross paths at an open mic night when an inebriated Clark heckles Warren: “Go on, tell us a joke!” The crowd reacts to the pair’s on-stage chemistry and an unlikely double act is formed. Huge follows their subsequent attempts to break into the cliquey upper echelons of comedy and become the next big thing.

Adapted from Miller’s play which he co-authored with Simon Godley and Jez Butterworth and premiered at the Fringe in 1993, the film has been a long time coming. With cameo performances from just about every comedian in the country, the viewer certainly shares the protagonists’ feeling of being stuck on the outside looking in. Although the acting is of a generally good quality throughout, it is Thandie Newton who steals the show, excellent in her five minute role as a ruthless American agent.

I really wanted to like this film and Miller does well in his first attempt at directing. The problem – as is the case in so many films about comedians – is that the jokes just aren’t that funny, even the ones that are clearly meant to be. I barely laughed once in the whole 80 minutes. Perhaps I have missed the point, and if I have, I will gladly eat my words, but I felt let down by this film and didn’t walk out of the cinema with a big smile on my face as I had expected. The moral of Huge seems to be that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that you will eventually end up in a chicken suit. Happiness, on the other hand, is a dingy pub with a toilet as a dressing room and a big bald guy called Warren.    

Ross Dickie


The Saint goes to the Edinburgh International Film Festival!

Sir Patrick Stewart signing autographs at the Opening Gala.

The 64th Edinburgh International Film Festival got under way last night with the UK premiere of The Illusionist, the latest offering from Oscar-nominated director Sylvain Chomet. Having previously hosted premieres such as Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction and The Hurt Locker, the EIFF continues to attract scores of cinephiles from all over the world and this year’s festival promises to be as memorable as ever.

Set in the Scottish capital, Chomet’s animation provided the perfect introduction to a twelve day programme of British and international cinema. The story revolves around a down-and-out magician who is forced to leave his native Paris in search of work on the other side of the channel. He inevitably begins his journey in London, only to find that as in France, illusionists are rapidly becoming an endangered species. The day of the music hall magician is coming to an end and the star of the foppish musician is in the ascendant. Disheartened, the weary entertainer gets back on the train and heads north to a remote Scottish village where he is welcomed as a hero. Whilst there, he meets a young girl called Alice who is so entranced by this mysterious stranger that she secretly follows him to Edinburgh. The two strike up a sort of father-daughter relationship in spite of the fact that they do not share a lingua franca.

A still from The Illusionist

The film is so spectacular to look at that it becomes all too easy to ignore the story itself. Yet behind its seemingly straightforward plot, The Illusionist deals with issues such as immigration and language. Unable to speak English, the protagonist communicates through his trade: entertainment, be it magic or film, provides a means of bridging the barriers of language.   

I found The Illusionist to be an utterly charming tribute to Chomet’s adopted home, beautifully animated and refreshingly two dimensional in a post-Avatar world. The director somehow manages to capture the unique Edinburgh sunlight and with it, all that is special about the city. This is a film tinted with nostalgia and melancholy but above all, a love of Scotland.

Watch this space for the latest news and reviews from EIFF 2010!

Ross Dickie


May 6, 2010

The St Andrews Feminist Film Festival

Flossie Topping and Michele Giovia are enlightened by empowering art

Last week marked one of the biggest events organized by a new St Andrews society, the St Andrews Feminists. Founded in the spring of 2009, the St Andrews Feminists have shed light on gender-related issues through discussions, lectures, activism and calibration with other societies. Organized in a communal structure as opposed to the usual hierarchical society set-up, the group has aimed to promote inclusion in the planning of the nearly thirty events it has carried out this year. The Saint caught up with the festival’s organizers on the last night of their weeklong event, and discussed the societies aims and activities over a home-cooked curry dinner.

The festival featured five different films over the course of the week, with approximately twenty-five to thirty students in attendance at each viewing. The society attributed the event’s success to the wide variety of themes and styles of the chosen films, which piqued the interest of a broad range of students. The diverse selection ranged from Nadine Labaki’s Caramel, a bittersweet comedy detailing the lives of five Lebanese women, to Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, a harrowing tale of the life of a New Zealand woman who was institutionalized and subjected to electric-shock therapy. The event also showcased Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels, which depicts the lives of Polish nuns deemed to be possessed.

A still from An Angel at My Table

While the films may not all express an overtly feminist theme, the society’s co-coordinator Miranda Myrberg, a fourth year, described the common thread.  The films all unearth the constructed and restrictive nature of gender roles, she said, and illustrate the efforts individuals undertake to free themselves from those roles.

The screening at the festival which audiences described as “most powerful” was the presentation of the HBO documentary The Greatest Silence: Rape in The Congo. The film captures the horrifying situation of women in the Congo, where rape  occurs on a daily basis, and on a mass scale, and explained how the country’s deterioration into civil war lead to the police attempting to use gang rape as a means of asserting power over villages swarmed with rebel forces. The audience reacted visibly to the atrocities displayed in the film, clutching their hands over gaping mouths at the sheer intensity of the brutal stories recounted.

Terrifying footage showed young girls and women affected by the pandemic, often carrying AIDS and no longer to live independently due to the injuries infliced by rapists. The film left the audience shaken, and offered no easy solution to the issues it presented. The victimswere left scarred, giving birth to children with no fathers; children that will grow up surrounded by violence and may reproduce the behaviour which these women fear every day, and which they are powerless to change.

Two of the St Andrews Feminists’ members, Sarah Lohmann and Annie Thuesen, expressed their hope that the powerful films displayed would encourage viewers to challenge the assumed gender roles in society that “reduce human beings to simply male or female,” they said. Another of the group’s participants, Benjamin Bridgman, hoped that the wide variety of viewpoints presented through the festival’s films brought attention to what he views as “the integral but often overlooked, philosophy of feminism,” he said.

The Feminist Society’s final event of the term will be the Reclaim the Night March held on Friday 7th May outside the Student’s Union. The group hopes to host additional film festivals in the fall semester.


Ghouls and Glamour for St Andrews cinephiles

Teresa McIntyre takes you inside The Half Cut Film Festival

The Half Cut Awards, held this year on 22 April, took its glamour up a notch by starting with a talk by BAFTA-winner Robert Sproul-Cran and a black-tie reception at the Golf Hotel. I was lucky enough to attend both, catching a glimpse into St Andrews’ thriving filmmaking culture.

Robert Sproul-Cran, one of the four Half Cut judges, gave an hour-long talk on his short film ‘The Elemental’ at School Six to an eager audience of about fifty aspiring filmmakers and movie fans.  In addition to his prodigious filmmaking abilities, which won him  a BAFTA in 2004 for In Search of the Tartan Turban, Mr. Sproul-Cran revealed himself to be an entertaining and refreshingly modest speaker.  He began his talk with a puzzling explanation for the “corpse” he brought with him to the talk.  We were then told that the corpse was Charlie, one of the protagonists in Mr. Sproul-Cran’s short horror film, The Elemental, and was thankfully made of plastic and latex, not flesh and bone.  The morbid joke was a funny introduction to his short horror film, which comes with the gripping tag line: See it and die.

When a friend criticised that tag line for being too commercial, Mr. Sproul-Cran said, “I was thinking, ‘yes, that’s what I want’.” It is refreshing to hear an artist openly acknowledge his aspiration towards the Hollywood style without worrying that he will seem too commercial or shallow; the mainstream is exactly where Mr. Sproul-Cran, and many other ambitious filmmakers, want to be.

The Elemental is about a creature from Mr. Sproul-Cran’s childhood. At the age of nine he first read about the creature, called the elemental—so evil that if one looks at it one dies—in a Victorian ghost story book that belonged to his mother. He said he slept with the lights on for months after discovering the beast. Last year, finally with the facilities to make his own film, Mr. Sproul-Cran brought his nightmare to life.

Mr. Sproul-Cran’s career is inspiring: he began studying architecture, failed, and then studied English followed by pure mathematics. He casually applied for a job as a radio announcer for Radio Scotland, and miraculously passed his interview. He then worked for Radio Scotland for ten years, though he modestly asserted that “they were so desperate to get rid of me.” Eventually, he offered to leave on the condition of getting some work experience in television, which his supervisors kindly set up for him.  He said that if had he pursued film straight away, he wouldn’t have had the life experiences he did. “I just didn’t have an idea it was a potential career,” he said of his childhood passion for storytelling.

Mr. Sproul-Cran set up his own production company, and quickly realised how difficult it was to find work and come up with new, interesting ideas. He wasn’t doing what he wanted, he said, “never having a chance to make a story dramatically from start to finish.”

The leap came when he decided to sell his comfortable home in Aberdeen, move to London, and use the extra money to make his first short film. Although it took him years to decide what to do, and then how to do it, sacrificing his family home on the way, he said has no regrets about his career.

With The Elemental already in mind, Mr. Sproul-Cran did some early sketches, and then  developed a suitably grotesque black latex beast. Slides of the creature and the film’s various characters as they evolved provided insight into the pre-production process for the audience, and demonstrated how much work it involves.  Mr. Sproul-Cran said he learned all sorts of bizarre creative techniques on the internet, like how to best recreate the texture of human skin (involving an orange and dental paste), which allowed him to make the film without any formal technical training.  Ellie is made of wood, fur, and latex, and is appropriately revolting on first impact.

Once he had his vile protagonist, Mr. Sproul-Cran then established different settings and characters. The story exposes the suffering of a blind elderly wife, caring for her husband, who suffers from dementia. The two of them live a squalid existence, perpetually in fear of the elemental, who their daughter confronts when she pays them a long overdue visit.   After finding a wonderful staircase at a council estate in Edinburgh for the main shooting location, he  said he felt his long-held  dream coming to life.

To express his vision in the best possible image quality, Sproul-Cran filmed the short on a Red-One camera, using his storyboard as a checklist to guide him through the scenes.  The crispness of the high definition digital footage showed off  “Charlie the Corpse” and the elemental well.  After the screening, Mr. Sproul-Cran took questions from the audience, who revealed themselves to be eager to make their own films, asking specific questions about how the film was made.

Mr. Sproul-Cran’s film cost £28,000 to produce. “It’s possible to make films with zero budget,” he said. He, however, wanted a professional crew, and so combined some of the money from selling his home in Aberdeen with financial aid from a friend. The production team also received £7,000 funding from the UK Film Council after a rough cut was completed, and was used to make a 35mm print of the film with high quality surround sound.  Mr. Sproul-Cran said the funding helped him get selected at several festivals around the world, including The Edinburgh International Film Festival.   He said the final result was well worth the 15 months the project took to complete.

Mr. Sproul-Cran, encouraged by the success of The Elemental, said he is now writing story outlines for feature films. He has a couple of scripts he will put forward for film development funding, and hopes to be shooting a feature film within the next twelve months.

Mr. Sproul-Cran’s inspiring talk left attendees with 45 minutes to get from School 6 to black-tie at the Golf Hotel.  The mad rush was well worth it, however; the reception was a fittingly glamorous opening to the evening. A live band and gold-dust cocktails welcomed guests, who included student filmmakers, Rogue Productions committee members and actors. I was slightly disappointed by the small crowd of only thirty cineastes, but everyone looked glamorous and excited for the evening ahead.  Guaranteed one drink with their tickets, attendees quickly took advantage of the low turn-out and finished off the surplus of cocktails, making the reception a warm introduction to the awards ceremony.

Rector Kevin Dunion attended, like last year, as one of the four judges for the evening, alongside director Robert Sproul-Cran and two Pixar animators, Lindsey VanderGalen and Jaime Landes.  Mr. Dunion told me he was impressed by the new black-tie dress-code, describing Half Cut as a “high class event…one of my favourites.”

“Four animators had asked to come,” he said of the festival’s prestige. “A pity that in the end, not even one made it due to the volcanic ash!” Instead, the two lucky Pixar judges watched the films in California and video-conferenced with our two judges present at the event, and so still managed to participate and judge the films.

At the New Picture House approximately 150 film fans strolled the festival’s red carpet, with 50s style paparazzi snapping at the elegant filmmakers, actors and viewers. The screening began punctually, and the eleven shorts were showered with applause.

Audience reactions were mixed, with some saying the standard of the films had dropped compared to the previous two years, while others found “the quality is really high.” All were agreed on one thing, though: the ambience was great and the evening was a well-organised, elegant event.  After a twenty-minute intermission during which the judges convened to decide on the winners, and the filmmakers paced in the New Picture House Lobby, four winners were announced.

This year, nominees were divided into categories: instead of a simple 1st, 2nd and 3rd in previous years, prizes were awarded for Best Technical Achievement, Best Screenplay, Best Acting and Best Film. This new system allowed for films that were weak in some areas, but strong in others, to be recognised.  For example, The Search for St Andrews, with a particular humour not suited to all, nevertheless contained a great performance by the lead actor and received a nomination for this redeeming quality.

Night Shift

A Beard Film and Volumes 1 & 2, two stop-motion shorts, and Night Shift, a Star Wars-inspired take on a battle between two janitors, were nominated in the category for Best Technical Achievement. Night Shift won for the quality of the light-sabers and accurate perspective.  Robert Sproul-Cran called it “a well realised film.”

Unrealistic Expectations About Love and Dog’s Dinner were nominated for Best Screenplay. While Unrealistic Expectations About Love had a “truthful, genuine voice,” according to Mr. Sproul-Can, Dog’s Dinner took the prize as a “well-crafted piece that had clearly had a great deal of work put into it,” he said. This film, with gruesome and bizarre action set to an equally disturbing poem in voice over, gripped the audience from start to finish.

London Lite

London Lite, The Search for St. Andrews and Unrealistic Expectations About Love were all up for the Best Acting award. Mr. Sproul-Cran criticized The Search for St Andrews for being too long—although the acting was strong, the other aspects of the film brought it down, he said. London Lite won for the genuineness of its two lead performances. The short, about strangers on the London underground and their peculiar behaviours and habits, was the first film shown, and made a fantastic start to the evening.

The judges struggled with many strong contenders for the Best Film category, but the film that they found to be consistent as “a film you could immerse yourself in”, said Mr. Sproul-Cran, was Unrealistic Expectations About Love.

With three nominations, Unrealistic Expectations About Love was a  clear favourite for Best Film. Julz Newton, the writer, director, and editor of the film, said she was overjoyed with her success, and gracefully accepted her prize with a radiant smile. I believe her film was an excellent choice for Best Film at the student film festival: it captures student life, and dealt with the trials and tribulations of student existence with wit and honesty.

Though there could only be four prizewinners, there were many strong films, including those nominated, such as A Beard Film and Volumes 1 & 2.  For example, I felt that the judges ought to have nominated Agro Vancouver, a thoroughly engaging, witty and elegant film that was one of my favourites. Paranoia, another amusing film about student life, was a favourite amongst the audience, and therefore warranted more mention than it received.  Not every film received the recognition it deserved, but, as anyone who has ever watched the Oscars realizes, this is always the case. By offering something to serious cinema aficionados with Mr. Sproul-Cran’s talk, as well as catering to more casual film fans with a glamorous festival experience, Half Cut 2010 was a success all in all.


People’s Choice at On the Rocks thrills and chills

Yesterday St Andrews cinéastes gathered at School 6 to view student-made films that didn’t quite make it into Half Cut, but were still well worth a view and a shot at the People’s Choice Award, which gave the film with the most votes a slot at the Half Cut awards ceremony this Thursday.   Of the 22 short films submitted to the Half Cut Film Festival this year, 8 were nominated for awards and will be screened on Thursday, and the others were shown at the People’s Choice Awards, a new addition to the festival as of last year.

A still from Striking a Balance (dir. Andrew Fox), screened at the People’s Choice Awards

“The People’s Choice Awards is basically a chance for all films to be screened if they weren’t nominated for an award,” said Charlotte Walsh, a third year Philosophy and Social Anthropology major, and President of Rogue Productions. “We like to promote people getting involved in film, [and] we wanted to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.”

Ms. Walsh said a little over half of the shorts submitted were from St Andrews, and the rest were directed by students from universities across Scotland.  Films by students from Glasgow and Sterling have been nominated for one of four awards–Best Film, Best Animation, Best Technical Ability, and Best Acting–and will be screened alongside local nominees at Half Cut on Thursday, 22 April.  The two Pixar animators who Rogue Productions will fly over, with help from sponsorship from Celebrating Fife and Fife Council, to help judge the nominated films had not planned on attending Monday night’s event, Ms. Walsh said.  The likelihood of their appearing on Thursday is dubious (God, Iceland, can’t you do anything right?), and if British airspace does not remain open, they may watch films from California  and judge via Skype–the show must go on.

“We had nine people who wanted to come,” Ms. Walsh said, “and we could only fly over two.”

The Rogue team has its fingers crossed that Eyjafjallajökull cooperates and allows those two lucky chosen ones to land in Scotland.

Though the celebrity judging panel was absent for the People’s Choice evening, the room was still electric with enthusiasm for independent filmmaking.  At 5:00, directors of the shorts screened looked anxiously around the largely empty lecture room, but by the time the screening started 10 minutes later seventy keen students had arrived to support their work.  The first film, The Simplest Trick directed by James Smith, was greeted with laughter and appreciative nodding for its innovative, rapid editing choices.  Mr. Smith chose Snatch-like decoupage, freeze frames and voice overs to craft his hero’s blind egoism.  The main character narrates the film, and until a small twist, leads himself and viewers to believe that he’s clever and badass.  Smug undergraduate masculine bravado exposed and humiliated for comedic effect. Excellent.

Director Jules Newton opened Unrealistic Expectations About Love, the next short screened, with a surprising dose of nudity that lead to some surprised giggling.  As in Mr. Smith’s effort, here the protagonist addresses the camera to divulge her guilt over having a one night stand and  yearning for a steady boyfriend, which dated the short slightly at the outset.  However, Ms. Newton moves viewers swiftly through the development of that relationship with an awkward first phone call that drew genuine laughs from the audience, and playfully inserts several other characters who deliver their funny–and pathetic–expectations of love to the camera.  The inventive script–despite the mildly depressing opening–and the fabulous lead performance by David Heathcote made Unrealistic Expectations one of the most audibly enjoyed films of the night, eliciting more giggles and guffaws than any other short screened.

Reverie by Ian Hendry, a 20-minute long science-fiction drama, marked a sharp change in the evening’s mood.  Beautifully shot with saturated filters in primary colours, sunflares and crisp focus (HD, as many short filmmakers can attest, is at times inescapably blurry), Reverie tells the story of four survivors and one strange prophet in post-apocalyptic Europe.  Mr. Hendry’s 20-minute odyssey was probably the most ambitious of the movies submitted, and through the bleak locations and simple costumes he chose, it was very believable.  The film contained moments of genuine suspense as the survivors struggle to avoid mysterious, fatal “storms” that periodically seize the desolate landscape, aided by an eerie, futuristic soundtrack that, marvelously, didn’t sound like it was crafted on Garage Band.   Mr. Hendry obviously has an eye for cinematography if not an ear for dialogue (“everybody’s dead!” could have been cut), and the film’s exceptional, original cinematography and special effects made it stand out.

Alone, directed by James Howe–a “Soggy Biscuit Production”–depicted the brand of loneliness, and hope for human connection, experienced by a man who lives and just is, yes, alone.  The director punctuates the hero’s solitary routine with poignant images of stagnancy many university students may be familiar with from their own homes; the cold apartment stairs, the overflowing kitchen garbage bin, the repetitive click of an electric kettle.  Mr. Howe succeeds in creating a weird, funny story that expounds the film’s main and only character’s loneliness compellingly, and manages to craft an attractive, scruffy aesthetic of blurred, curved lines and long still shots that makes the viewer feel as isolated as his protagonist.

“You know, I really love your lips.” One of the many hilarious lines of Paranoia, a short horror comedy that lets the audience in on its humour slowly, through a combination of comedically overwrought classic genre shots–man in the window! body in a trunk!–and deliciously creepy dialogue.  Paranoia tells the story of one woman’s stalking by Adam Creeperjee, an innocent pervert whose intentions are unclear. Director Azhani Amiruddin takes jabs at genre conventions by giving a definitive answer on the veracity of the protagonist’s suspicions; she refuses to leave the usual “is she crazy?” question up in the air, with very funny results.

As the evening wore on, many viewers left–a large chunk of the support team for  Paranoia voted and left at around 6:15.  Many stayed on, however, for Your Beautiful Land–an allegorical music video about the plight of migrants by Helene Sifre–and the abstract No More Laughter by Ulrika Becker.  Your Beautiful Land captures a man’s trying journey and brief happiness as he finds love and a home in St Andrews, set to a beautiful, melancholy song by Heaven Sheep.  The music video showcases St Andrews’ idyllic scenery, and is a touching reminder of how lucky students are to go to school here (at least during the summer, when the film seems to have been shot, when it doesn’t rain).

No More Laughter explores the contours of bourgeoise malaise at a crumbling mansion in a bucolic forest.  A rebuke to HD, Ms.Becker’s short looked like it was shot on film, and was given a soft, slurred effect by shifts in focus and handheld tracking shots.  The meaning of the metaphor of the old man and the Disney book he cherishes flew over the heads of many present, but the poignancy of his struggle to maintain some form of childhood wonder–brilliantly echoed in his childish costume–wasn’t lost.  The man’s daughter seems to be able to recapture the sense of innocence he has lost, giving the short’s dark turn a hopeful ending.  Ms. Becker’s style and voice was the most cohesive and clear, and its cohesion and aesthetic appeal helped the audience understand–or at least appreciate–the abstract ideas it expresses.

And I’m on a Mission by Mariko Primarolo, a reflexive documentary/narrative genre-blurring take on how to make a good movie, seemed to give a nice commentary on the different approaches taken by the films screened during the evening.  The Department of Film Studies’ infamous David Martin Jones tells Mariko that movies must encompass a variety of emotions to be successful, along with a dance number for added entertainment.  Various interviewees “found” (what’s staged and what isn’t is left ambiguous) on the streets of St Andrews listed their preferences for different genres; indie-aficionados, rom-com lovers and those who believe a great narrator is key detail their ideas on what makes the world’s greatest film.  In the end, Mariko seems to settle on a traditional Hollywood narrative of search, strife and revelation, with the help of a love interest.  The result might not quite be the world’s greatest film, but an entertaining, earnest testament to the thriving student film culture in St Andrews and the director’s passion for cinema.

A Short Detective Drama demonstrated that passion in a most more focused fashion, channelling film noir for inspiration.  Slick cinematography in black and white, and self-satirizing lines like “I don’t have time for all this passive aggressive sexual tension crap!” from a mock-femme fatale made Kabelo Ntsele’s short one of the coolest, and most meta of the evening.

A still from A Short Detective Drama

The director cleverly, and believably, used pans of black and white photographs for his exteriors, giving the film an aura of professionalism and high production value that was similarly displayed through the clever use of filters and a minimalist landscape in Reverie.  A scary boiler room, creepy face mask, spiral telephone cord and a pair of wayfarers–as well as a very 40s male narrator–allowed the audience to feel as if they had stepped into an old detective drama, while making viewers laugh at the operatic excesses of the genre.

“A true story based on genuine events that really happened”, The Cave Painters is a jovial, sardonic romp by “Rad Jihad Productions” that exposes the futility and pretension of the aspiring-artist’s lifestyle.  Directed by brothers Ben and Lawrence Dunat, the last film The Saint could cover follows two brothers, one desperately trying to make non-bourgeoise art and the other confirming that his art is, indeed, too bourgeoise.  Long scenes of the aspiring brother’s self-imposed isolation made the crowd laugh, as did the techno that the elder brother seemed to find comfort, meaning, and some form of artistic subversiveness in.

The directing duo also used expressionistic dream sequences to show how the characters saw their emotional states; the question “how do I feel right now?” is answered by one of the brother’s repeatedly stabbing his hand, which the Dunats manage to make light of.    The film flaunts a non-Garage Band soundtrack made by actual bands with instruments, which was timed to add to the short’s humour.

The audience was allowed to vote for two films, and after the screening finished they filed their votes–they were allowed two each, first and second choice. On Wednesday the votes were tabulated, and Paranoia (dir. Azhani Amiruddin) and Unrealistic Expectations About Love (dir. Julz Newton) were selected by the audience to go through to the awards ceremony, which takes place 8:30 tomorrow evening at the New Picture House.

To read more about the other films screened during the People’s Choice Evening which were not covered here, pick up a copy of The Saint tomorrow, Thursday 22 April.  Striking a Balance, Delenda and The Fresher’s Film are featured in the Screen section.

UPDATE: Ég hata þig, Eyjafjallajökull!  Due to volcanic ash-hattery the Pixar judges will now hold their pre-Half Cut talk via Skype, and will watch the awards and help judge them from California.

Katie Meyer


Glasgow Film Festival: Day 3

On my last day at the festival I went to see André Téchiné’s drama The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER) a true story of a girl who claims she is the victim of an anti-Semitic attack, a claim which causes political uproar and draws in the president only to be revealed as a lie. Emilie Dequenne is the girl (Jeanne), a rollerblading unemployed twenty-something who lives with her babysitter mother Catherine Deneuve in the Parisian suburbs. When Jeanne meets the boisterous amateur wrestler Franck, he offers her a job as a caretaker and they and live together in a warehouse-like apartment and are paid vast amounts of money. Jeanne comes home one day to find Franck, bleeding to death on the floor with many broken open dvd players which Franck tells her contained cocaine (there was a drug raid, he was stabbed). Franck goes to jail and Jeanne goes insane, slashing herself with a dagger to simulate an anti-Semitic attack on the train.  Her mother has a break-down, travelling to a country house with some lawyer friends to rejuvenate.

André Téchiné leaves the character’s motives ambiguous although the film is split in two sections ‘circumstances’ and ‘consequences,’ the film is presented more as a picture of a girl trying to find herself. The multi-stranded effect to the narrative left me feeling unsatisfied and I left the cinema feeling like there were many unanswered questions. While the acting performances were convincing, the focus on the characters instead of the effects on the outside world and bigger questions concerning race issues in France, left me feeling detached from what could have been a more startling and gripping news piece.

André Téchiné has produced greats such as Les Voleurs and Rendez-Vous in years past, and his most recent upheld his reputation; giving an intimate look at human emotion. Watch the trailer for The Girl on the Train here:

-Flossie Topping


Glasgow Film Festival: Day 2

On Saturday I was meant to be going to see Whip it (comedy about roller derby due out in cinemas a month from now), but there was a bit of a mix up with tickets and I was a given a ticket for ‘Director’s Cut (blank)’ instead. Mystified by the title I decided to go and see whatever it was and was pleasantly surprised. Director’s Cut is a series of discussions with filmmakers and broadcasters from around the world set up by the University of Aberdeen and hosted by Scottish Screen. The filmmaker interviewed was Scottish born Kevin Macdonald, famous for Touching The Void (2003) for which he won a BAFTA and The Last King of Scotland (2006) for which he directed Forest Whitaker who took an Oscar for his performance. Looking tough in leathers, BBC presenter Janice Forsyth conducted the interview; a funny mixture of tales from film sets with difficult stars (Brad Pitt/Russell Crowe on State of Play) , biographical exerts and tidbits of methods and inspirations for projects past and to come.

The director presented his life’s work as a series of fortunate happenstance arising from his failed career in journalism, detailing the move from news coverage to documentary. He  emphasized his love for presenting fact on screen, yet admitted how manipulating images with music can be (with this comment we were shown a clip from his first documentary One Day in September, an Israeli athlete running in the Munich Olympics in ’72 along to Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin). He also talked about his move to Hollywood and how this provoked the change in his work to fiction films, while insisting his heart still belonged in Scotland and his work would always carry a more European style. His whirlwind success of a career was enviable and he managed to charm the crowd  by relating to all his childhood days spent at the GFT, the  (now closed) Odeon and Abc.

The interview was filmed and recorded and will be on radio BBC Scotland on Thursday at 13.15 as part of ‘The Movie Cafe,’ or you can catch it on iPlayer once it has been uploaded.

-Flossie Topping


Glasgow Film Festival: The last weekend

Following up on Ross Dickie’s coverage of the first weekend of the Glasgow Film Festival, I’ll be covering its closing weekend.  I managed to score a ticket to see the widely talked about Russian musical Hipsters (Stilyagi, its Russian title or Boogie Bones in the US) by award-winning writer/director Valery Todorovsky. It is unlike any other Russian film I’ve seen in that the subject matter is so untouched in contemporary Russian filmmaking; mostly, the only musicals released in Russia are adaptations of American ones such as Chicago and Cats.  When something like Hipsters is released, (which looks like a clash between Grease and Hairspray) it is completely unexpected.

The film presents the youth culture of the underground jazz scene  in 1950s Moscow, a generation seduced by the flashy razzle dazzle of America as an escape from the oppressed Soviet society around them.  Their parents enforce respect and chastise their hedonistic living as disrespectful to their own hard-working lives in the cold war era. The guys fashion pompadours (Elvis/Jedward hair), sneakers and clashing cool cat suits while the girls don swishing skater skirts in pop colours, lipstick and drawn-on nylons. The vibrant aesthetic and fast paced catchy rhythms and dance routines were playful and fun-filled; by the half-way point I was desperate to cover myself in bows and attempt to do the splits. I now consider my wardrobe in dire need of a underskirt or three and mary-jane heels and headscarves (gosh really?)–you get the drift, I dig their style. Here’s one of the songs (I promise you’ll be learning the Russian lyrics in no time)

Although I found the film charming and hilarious, I didn’t find it particularly “Russian.” On becoming Hipsters, the characters changed their names from Russian names like ‘Polska’ to more American ones ‘Polly’, and left behind the ideologies of those around them, favouring the American dream. They continually talked about freedom, while drinking Jack Daniels, smoking Camels and playing Elvis records. At one point our hero ‘Mel’ is playing saxophone in his bedroom and then is magically transported to New York on a rooftop playing a duet with Charlie Parker, the skyline clear of smog and noise and a faint breeze blowing the hair from his eyes. One character eventually makes it to America, but is greeted only by disillusionment. The conclusion to the film is a kind of unsatisfactory ‘world peace’ type song with modern-day emos hugging 80s punks and 70s disco rats in a kind of all-time-is-connected confusing way. Despite all the political discourse which arises from a film like this, I found indulgence in the energy and liveliness of the performances and thought it was highly entertaining and would encourage you to watch out for it.

Flossie Topping


Glasgow Film Festival: Day 2

With One Voice (D’une seule voix)

This uplifting documentary follows musician Jean-Yves Labat de Rossi and his efforts to unite Israeli and Palestinian performers through the medium of music. Having achieved a similar project in Sarajevo, Labat de Rossi aimed to encourage cultural exchange based on a foundation of mutual respect and understanding. Musicians from both countries were to perform together in a series of concerts throughout France, which would focus on music and not politics.

Inevitably things don’t quite work out as the Frenchman had intended. Allegations fly, with both sides accusing the other of attempting to hijack the tour for their own political agendas. In one case, the mention of Mahmoud Abbas provokes anger in the Israeli camp and the culprit is duly berated by an incensed Labat de Rossi as if he were a naughty schoolboy.

As the film progresses the tension begins to fade and close friendships are established. Perhaps the most poignant scene in the documentary is where one of the younger performers, an Israeli boy, is asked how he feels about Palestinians in light of his experiences. His response is that he is less afraid of them than he was before. I had expected him to say something predictable like “they’re really nice,” but his answer was far more profound. His fear was derived from a lack of familiarity and understanding: fear of the unknown.

In spite of the tour’s success most of the musicians were not optimistic about the prospect of peace within their lifetime. Sure this film won’t solve the problems of the Middle East but it does serve to remind us that there is always hope.

Capitalism: A Love Story

If you’ve seen any of Michael Moore’s previous films (Bowling for Columbine, Sicko etc.) you will probably be familiar with the format of his latest project. In his characteristically blue-collar style the director has turned his attention to the issue of the day: the financial crisis. More specifically, Moore has chosen to address the looming figure of capitalism and if it is really as equitable as American politicians claim it to be.

I’m no economist and couldn’t possibly comment on the validity of the film’s judgments but it’s certainly entertaining. This in itself is a considerable achievement. Who would have thought that after months of relentless media coverage it would actually be possible to produce an interesting film on the subject? However, the movie is not without its flaws. Moore has a tendency to use specific examples to make sweeping generalizations and often plays on the viewer’s emotions to strengthen his arguments. Scenes of families being evicted from their homes can make it hard to maintain a balanced debate.

Overall I thought the film was pretty enjoyable, accessible and surprisingly amusing considering the topic. When seeking a comment from a random stockbroker, Moore received the sarcastic response of “don’t make any more movies.”  Personally, I hope he doesn’t take this to heart.

– Ross Dickie


Glasgow Film Festival: Day 1

Rookies (Sotsugyo)

Imagine a Japanese version of Coach Carter, exchange basketball for baseball, and you have this film in a nutshell. Ryuta Sato takes on the role of Kawato Koichi, a maverick coach who galvanizes the high school baseball club and leads them to a place in the prestigious Koshien Tournament. Described on the Glasgow Film Festival website as Japan’s biggest box office success of 2009, I entered the cinema with relatively high expectations. I should have known better.

For starters the film is unbearably cheesy throughout: far too much talk of ‘dreams’ and ‘destiny’ for my liking. It’s just a baseball game! After about twenty minutes of bad acting and incoherent dialogue there is a scene where one of the players says something like “we’re all going to Koshien.”  Cue sentimental music, big smiles and slow motion.

The reason Coach Carter gets away with a little cheese is because it portrays sport as a means for underprivileged students to reach university and a better way of life. My main problem with Rookies relates to the character development or lack there of: little time is dedicated to backstory and the result is a feeling of detachment.  By the end of the film I couldn’t have cared less which team won, just so long as it was over.

I’m trying to avoid the clichéd “there’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back,” but it just seems so fitting in this case. The last twenty minutes are a succession of gushing speeches and tearful goodbyes directed at coach Koichi. One would have been more than enough, thanks.

The French Kissers (Les Beaux Gosses)

A story of teenage angst, The French Kissers is somewhere in between American Pie and Superbad but told with a decidedly French sensibility. The film follows the geeky character of Hervé (Vincent Lacoste) and his obsession with the opposite sex, in particular the popular Aurore (Alice Trémolière) with whom he starts up an awkward relationship.

I’m not sure how much this is down to the fact that I had just seen Rookies but I found The French Kissers to be a thoroughly refreshing and amusing take on a subject which has become all too familiar. The dialogue is sharp and the acting is of a generally high standard in spite of the cast’s relative youth. Noémie Lvosky is also fantastic in her role as Hervé’s mother: inquisitorial and embarrassing as only a mother can be.

Having written, directed and starred in the film, Riad Sattouf is someone to look out for in the future. In this, his directorial debut, he shows a skill and vision which belie his inexperience. French humour and culture are effortlessly blended with an essentially American format to create a film with the edginess of Juno and the quirkiness of Amélie. À voir!

Ross Dickie


Star Wars, leaky sinks and rock and roll

Flossie Topping goes inside the topsy-turvy mind of a first-time director

Riotous applause welcomed a man in a seventies suit and afro onto the stage, after a promising press screening of  The Sentimental Engine Slayer at the Rotterdam International Film Festival.  I didn’t initially recognize the curious character beaming at the crowd in his  strange attire as the film’s director,  Omar Rodriguez-Lopez.  The festival rookie stood out at Rotterdam not only for his unique dress sense,  but also for his prolific creative career before he ventured into cinema. The Sentimental Engine Slayer  is Mr. Lopez’s first feature [he has made two others, but hasn’t released them]; he is better known for his achievements in music as front man of the progressive-rock band The Mars Volta.  At 34, Mr. Lopez has produced over thirty albums with different bands and enjoyed a successful solo career.

With The Sentimental Engine Slayer, Mr. Lopez has thrown himself into film as passionately as he did with music.  He wrote the screenplay, directed, co-produced, created the soundtrack, acted in the lead  role and integrated his own artwork and poetry—-no one can deny he is an auteur.  During our interview he spoke excitedly and extremely quickly about the film I had just experienced.  So electric was his  energy and enthused was his every comment, I wondered if he had snorted crack before the Q&A (it would explain a lot about the film). But I came to realise that even if he had been on crack, what gives Mr. Lopez his intensity is his pure passion for artistic expression.  He continually referred to his work as a way of letting out the “sickness,” ideas that were boiling up inside him and had to be let out.  Like a visionary, Mr. Lopez projected the idea that his creations were out of his control, supplied to him in dreams—a beautiful and effortless evolution of concepts.

The result of this process is  The Sentimental Engine Slayer, the story of Barlam (Lopez) a young man living in a small house in El Paso, Mexico, with his sister and her bedwetting boyfriend. Barlam is on a complex journey of sexual exploration.  He has a curious relationship with his drug-addicted sister, he is forced into relations with a prostitute he tries to murder, and finally ends up having sex with a male prostitute in drag (played by Omar’s brother) with violent results.  Mr. Lopez conveys Barlam’s troublesome transition to manhood with his musical talents.  The inventive soundtrack subverts characters voices to other noises, and reflects Barlam’s frustration and confused perspective.

Adding to Barlam’s disorientation, Mr. Lopez combines surreal dream sequences with reality in a distorted timeline, leaving the viewer wondering what exactly has really happened. The film’s extremely colourful imagery and experimental score reflects the psychological elements stimulated by the drug infused world the viewer is thrown into.  I caught up with Mr. Lopez at the festival for insight into his creative mind.

The Saint: What is your writing process? How do you create your poetry?
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez: You call it poetry, you call it art, it’s all the same to me. It’’s this now, it’s a nervous thing and so you write something out and maybe it becomes a beautiful idea and maybe it’s the toilet paper that you wipe your ass with … you never know, you know? … They’re just born all the time and then all of a sudden they grow up and they want to be something… It’s the same when people ask me, “how do you write music?” It’s a bucket underneath a leaky sink: the sink will leak all the time, and so all of us get up in the morning and we have the internal monologue and right before we go to bed the brain is still talking.  Buddhists work all their lives to quiet the inner monologue.  The rest of us are sick and we think about bullshit, about jealousy and things that aren’t important— and so I put the bucket underneath the sink and  I  capture all the things, and some of them are good and some of them are useless and then you can make the bucket empty and then it just fills back up again and then it keeps happening and happening and there’s no end to it, you know?

TS: There are many similarities between Barlam’s life and your own [Omar’s mother and father feature as Barlam’s parents, two of his brothers act in the film and it’s set in Omar’s own home town]. Are any of the scenes adapted from your childhood memories? Is the film autobiographical at all?
ORL: Of course, everything that I do is inspired by something that has happened, even if it’s not real. If it happens when I’m dreaming, [like] George Lucas when he makes Star Wars—if he dreams that he is the emperor of the universe and that he has lived on the moon, then he has [been inspired by real events] because he’s dreamed it.  So, everything’s coming from a real life experience, and so yes these characters and these situations, except obviously murder, have happened. Since I was a child I have had a recurring nightmare that I am killing someone and I have to hide the body, just like in the film.  I make the movie and now I no longer have the nightmare. It’s a way of pushing it out… Everything I do is like a therapy. Instead of paying the man to sit and talk, I make the picture, and I make records for the exact same reason. No form of expression is worthwhile if it doesn’t [help] you become better in some way. This is the most important thing – to let go of the sickness – because if I keep it in then I keep being sick, you know, like a pimple, it comes to the surface and you have to pop it and it comes out.

TS: You are 34, but in the film you play a 20-year-old. What changes did you make to play the part, and was it an easy transition?
ORL: The whole thing was quite interesting because it was never my intention to play that character. The guy who was supposed to play it bailed out on me five days before we started filming, because I can’t pay him and he gets a job where they can pay him, and so then it was just survival. I either play that part or the movie doesn’t get made.  What seemed like torture at the time helped me to understand the film, and to live the film in a different way—this perspective of actors in front of the camera, because I’ve always been behind the camera.

TS: Following the release of  The Sentimental Engine Slayer, you will be releasing two further films: El Divino Influjo De Los Secretos and Boiling Death Request. Can you tell me about these projects?
ORL: El Divino Influjo De Los Secretos was shot in Mexico and in Hamburg, Germany, and it is a love story between two best friends who go on a journey for one of them to have piece of mind. Boiling Death Request is more of a music film.  There was film taken from my tours in Europe, but mixed in with some documentation of my compound where I live, the centre of energy.  It’s where I film, it’s where I rehearse, it’s also where I do everything. [Boiling Death Request] also has a narrative inside it, which I call “the failed film.” It also has abstract pieces of [pure] imagery, so I don’t know how to define this film, but its centre force is music. It’s a very interesting child, we’ll see what it turns out being.

TS: You seem to be producing more films than music at the moment.  Do you see yourself becoming more of a filmmaker in the future?
ORL: It’s all the same to me. I don’t see myself as a filmmaker nor do I see myself as a painter. I am nothing because I am everything, I am like all of us around us. I can cook, but I don’t say that I am a chef; I can ride a bicycle, but I don’t say that I am a cyclist. I’m not in it for those things, I’m in it for survival and for understanding and for growing and for the only true thing that our souls want to do, which is to evolve and to become one with God. For me it’s all one big project.  When I do interviews, people focus on it as “this film, this record,” and it’s all connected.  This interview is now my project, you know? Because we’re discussing it and now through the conversation I make other realisations through other ideas; the film keeps living and living and living. It’s all one big conceptual continuity.  They are all the same themes, which are all the same things I think about, which are all the same themes of anyone in the world. In the end we’re all separated by culture and geography and passports and different colours of skin but we’re not different at all. You take Van Gogh’s paintings or [someone else’s] and their themes are the same: death, suffering, joy, passion, desire. The same questions: what is God? How do I fit into God? Is there a God? What is illumination? We’re all the same so in the end it’s not so unique, it’s just how you dress it up, you dress it up and you try to make the altar gravitate toward other ones, you know?

TS: Why did you choose the Rotterdam International Film Festival to premiere your film over any other festival?
ORL: First off, because Rotterdam is one of the great last true film festivals. It’s about the art, it’s not about the red carpet, it’s not about the stars.  It’s about the whole. They don’t say, “who were the stars?”  They say, “who were the technical people? Who was the director?”  It’s about the expressive form and this is what is important to me.

Certainly a very interesting man, to say the least.  Watch out for  The Sentimental Engine Slayer  in cinemas, and his two latest projects at festivals next year. Mr. Lopez’s unconventional art is an experience not to be missed.


Turtle: The Incredible Journey Lives Up to its Name

Mary Andes went all the way to London to watch a little turtle go even further

Thousands of loggerhead sea turtles are born every year, on beaches all over the world.  Despite this large number, these turtles have been on the endangered species list for over three decades due to the negative human impact on their natural habitat (BP oil spill, anyone?).  The turtles that survive the dangerous act of hatching on public beaches have to then go through an arduous voyage through the ocean, before eventually retuning to their home beach to lay eggs.  Turtle: The Incredible Journey tells of this long – and exciting – voyage.

Following in the tradition of other humanizing animal documentaries, such as the very successful March of the Penguins, the film is narrated by a famous and recognizable voice – this time Miranda Richardson (recognizable, most recently, from her role as Rita Skeeter in the Harry Potter films).  Also like the famous penguin story, Turtle uses the grand themes and emotions of traditional Hollywood cinema to make the viewer care about the turtle as more than a sea animal, but rather as a personality and character in its own right.

The film follows the life cycle of a female loggerhead, from her hatching on a beach in Florida, through her long swim towards the Arctic, and finally back to her home beach, where she starts the process over by laying her own eggs.  The story of this epic voyage rivals those of any other epic films, and partly because of this, the documentary does a fantastic job of being both entertaining and educational.

Although Turtle does have an important message – that the natural habitat of the loggerhead is threatened by human pollution of the oceans – the film does not feel like the public service announcement it could have turned into.  Instead, the life of this sea creature, told through breathtakingly beautiful underwater shots, becomes so much like a typical movie plot that one forgets he or she is watching a documentary.  The natural danger inherent in a sea turtle’s life – from sharks, whales, and even other turtles – become the foes of the hero, the turtle herself.  When the turtle finally reaches her home shore once again and lays her eggs, the happiness of the viewer is no less than when the girl finally gets her prince in a Disney film.

Although some argue that animal documentaries that anthropomorphize their subject animals–with human emotions imposed on them—are artificial, it is hard to see this artificialness as a bad thing when watching Turtle: The Incredible Journey.  Especially when you’re too busy cheering the little turtle on.


Happiest Girl Not So Happy for Viewers

Mary Andes finds a film about how long a commercial shoot can take feels – surprise! – long

Romania is not a country known worldwide for its cinema, but Radu Jude, a director and writer, has been trying to change this with four cinematic releases since 2006.  His most recent film, The Happiest Girl in the World, is a well-directed 99-minute effort to put Romania on the cinematic map – but ultimately falls a bit short of this lofty goal.  The Happiest Girl in the World centres on one day in the life of Delia, the girl in the (sarcastic) title, a teenage girl who has won a soft-drink competition – winning both a car and the honor of starring in a commercial in Bucharest for the soft-drink company. What should be a fun and exciting occasion for Delia quickly turns into a battle of wills with her parents, however, who see her newly won car as their ticket to a better life – provided, of course, that they sell it and invest the money elsewhere.  Delia’s day is thus spent arguing with her parents, filming the commercial through clenched teeth, and wallowing in teenage angst.

The film is shot in a gritty manner that helps to convey the normality of the situation – what is more normal, after all, than a teenage girl having a bad day and blaming it on her parents?  Jude’s use of long shots and a realist feel add to the humor of the film, as Delia again and again messes up the commercial she is begrudgingly filming.

Ultimately, however, the film feels like what could have been an amazing and more palatable short film has been stretched into a rather mediocre full feature.  The simplistic plot is entertaining at first, but struggles to fill all 99 minutes of the film.  Its main gag – the director and crew of the commercial’s utter bafflement as this young girl remains so miserable and obnoxious while filming what they all believed was such a great prize – is amusing at first, but gets tiresome as time progresses and the film remains stagnant.

The Happiest Girl in the World does come across as an honest, realistic film, but this may also be its downfall.   Delia’s day of utter misery and her battle of wills with both the director of her commercial and her parents definitely feels like an experience with which any girl who was once sixteen can identify, but without any further plot, does anyone really want to relive this time in their life for more than an hour and a half?


A dreamy comedy about a tense situation

Mary Andes enjoys The Time That Remains

The history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a complicated one, with emotions running high on both sides.  Since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, there has been unrest in the region – and not many films made in either territory.  Elia Suleiman is one of the few directors working out of Palestine today, and his third film – The Time That Remains – is his most ambitious yet.  The Time That Remains attempts to tell both one man’s personal story, and the story of Israel and Palestine since 1948.  Suleiman manages an engaging film with an interesting story, although it may be the weakest in his trilogy yet.

In 1996, Suleiman made his first film in his trilogy, Chronicles of a Disappearance.  Divine Intervention followed six years later.  The Time That Remains complete this diptych, which is connected more in tone and mood than actual plot, and is the most personal film yet.  Told in four episodes, the film is based on Suleiman’s own father’s diary and his mother’s letters to her family, from the 1940s until the current day. Although the film does have a political element – it is hard to imagine a film made in such conditions that would not – this is far from the main theme.  Instead, Suleiman uses personal stories and surprisingly funny black comedy to show the life of an average Palestinian living in what is now Israeli land.

Suleiman, who directed and wrote the feature, also stars in it, playing what seems to be a version of himself.  Entirely silent, his unnamed character harkens back to actors like Buster Keaton, with a wide-eyed stare and a penchant for getting into interesting scrapes.  Although it is hard to think of a current international relations situation that is less amusing than the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Suleiman manages to show both the absurdness of it and the humor.  In doing so, he humanizes the people involved in the conflict in ways that news reports often fail to do.

The Time That Remains has a dreamy, experimental air about it, another surprise when considering the topic.  Like his past films, Suleiman uses techniques such as sight gags and bright colors to make what could be a bleak, dark film into something much more enjoyable.  The result is a film that is strangle unsettling, but surprisingly fun to watch.  Although Suleiman may have directed the least impressive film in his trilogy, the first two set such high standards that even the third best film is better than most.  When considering what a hard topic Suleiman was working with, The Time That Remains comes across as even more impressive.


The Road is worth the trip

Mary Andes reviews a startling adaptation screened at the London Film Festival

Cormac McCathy’s The Road has been called in numerous reviews one of the best, most important books of the decade.  With a starting material already so beloved, the film version of The Road, adapted by screenwriter Joe Penhall and directed by John Hillcoat, has a lot to live up to.

The story of a father and son making their way south after some untold apocalypse, The Road is haunting and dark, yet beautiful.  The novel did not seem easily translatable to film, with unnamed characters and a ruined, ashen landscape that acted as a character all its own.  Yet Hillcoat manages it perfectly.  The relationship between the Man and Boy as they struggle to survive is believable and heart wrenching, despite the fantasy setting.  Even more impressive is that the shots of ruined and abandoned landscapes were not CGI.  Instead, the filmmakers searched all over the United States for abandoned, desolate locations they could shoot. The setting itself works just as it did in the novel – filming in abandoned places mostly in Pennsylvania, the film includes realistic panning and establishing shots, all of which show the destruction the world has suffered since whatever terrible event starts the ordeal.  This brings a realism to the movie that could easily have been missed, turning The Road from a run of the mill end-of-the-world, 2012 action thriller into a nuanced portrait of one man trying to keep humanity alive in a sea of darkness.

Because the movie focuses so heavily on the protagonists – called only the Man and the Boy – as two of the few survivors of the disaster, the casting for The Road was key.  This is another element that Hillcoat got just right.  Viggo Mortensen stars as the unnamed Man, and from the first scene is hits all the right notes of desperation and incredible love for his son.  The true star of the film, however, is Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays the Boy.

Just eleven during production, Smit-McPhee is perfect as the Boy who retains his innocence as he witnesses the depths of human depravity in The Road’s harsh world.  This is one of Smit-McPhee’s first major pictures, but he is sure to be a bigger star.

After its release date has been pushed back three times, The Road is finally coming to cinemas this month. It’s destined to be one of the most talked about films of the year, and definitely won’t be forgotten come award season.  Don’t miss it.


Two twenty-somethings ask: is true love real?

Mary Andes tries to puzzle out the hipster conundrum that is Paper Heart by interrogating its star, Charlyne Yi, and director, Nicholas Jasenovec, at the London Film Festival

Published on 29 October, 2009 in the Saint and on thesaint-online.com

‘I’m both nervous and excited’, Charlyne Yi explained, discussing the impending UK release of  Paper Heart, a new film she wrote, produced, and starred in.  ‘But I think I’m always nervous, unfortunately,’ she added, in her trademark self-flagellating, yet humorous tone.  This tone permeates   Paper Heart, one of the most popular films showing at the London Film Festival last week.

The film tells the story of Charlyne, a young, cynical comedian and musician living in Los Angeles, as she tries to figure out what love means and whether it exists.  Charlyne is a strict non-believer in true love and sets out to make a documentary to find out if her cynicism has merit.  She journeys across the United States and asks all kinds of people – from science professors, couples together for fifty years, young kids, and even a (dubious) psychic – the meaning of love.  While she is making the documentary alongside Nicholas Jasenovec (the real director,  represented in front of the camera by actor Jake M. Johnson), she meets Michael Cera, whose clumsy charm is recognizable from his roles in  Superbad, Arrested Development, and Juno. The two start a cute, albeit awkward, relationship, but the audience is kept in the dark about whether or not their frisson is real, or created outside the documentary strand of the film.

Despite the positive festival buzz surrounding  Paper Heart, a lot of people left its screenings confused.  Viewers at the festival – a group encompassing everyone from filmmakers and press to London students – seemed to enjoy   Paper Heart, but didn’t know how to categorize the it.  Had they just watched a documentary?  A mockumentary?  A rom-com?

The best way to describe Paper Heart is none of the above and all of the above.  It’s part documentary, in which Yi interviews real people about their experiences with love, and part fictional boy-meets-girl romance, starring Michael Cera and Charlyne as themselves. Paper Heart is a riddle of a film about making a documentary, with real documentary sections included.

Sound confusing?  At the hotel bar during the festival in late October the filmmakers sat down with a few journalists to clarify the project.  ‘When they ask what it is I just tell them it is a hybrid of both (documentary and fiction),’ Charlyne said.  ‘All the stuff that happens to the B-line story, the romantic interest with Jake Johnson, who plays Nick, and Michael, is all fictional.  But everything about the interviews is true. ‘

Nick Jasenovec, who makes his major directional debut with the feature, also weighed in on his work’s puzzling tone.  ‘There are tons of people who are convinced it’s all a documentary until the credits roll,’ he said.  According to Jasenovec, ‘only the savviest audience members’ can really understand when the movie tells its fictional story and when it is acting as true documentary.

‘Theres a variety of reactions,’ he said, something to which Charlyne agreed.  She went on to laugh about some of the audience responses – particularly those from people who mistakenly think her relationship with Michael Cera in the film is real and ask her about her boyfriend, not realizing the two never actually had a romantic relationship.  ‘It’s interesting,’ she said.  ‘Sometimes I correct them, sometimes I play along.’ The fact that many audience members believe so soundly in a relationship that never was goes to show how deep the hybrid of fiction and documentary is in the film.  The believability of the adorably gawky chemistry between Cera and Yi is also a testament to their performances; they make it easy to understand why audiences can’t accept the realistic, 20-something relationship they create onscreen as fiction.

As Yi and Jasenovec explained during the meeting, all the interviews in the film are real – they were unscripted and shot with non-actors.  They are the best part of the film; the diverse stories of loves lost, loves still together years on, and everything in between are captivating.  Yi may be awkward in front of the camera – a trait she readily admits on screen, stressing time and again that she is not an actress – but she excels at getting people to open up and tell her personal stories.  Her extreme modesty even makes her  downplay this, however. She said anyone could have done the interviews because the interviewees ‘were just so proud of their love stories and so excited to share,’ an exuberance that gives Charlyne’s quest for love hope.

Certainly what everyone couldn’t have done is Yi’s visual contribution to the interviews. She made simple construction-paper puppets and backgrounds to accompany and illustrate their stories as they speak in voiceover.  This use of puppetry is unique and much more entertaining than the documentary standard of static shots of talking heads.  ‘I have ADD,’ Charlyne explained, ‘I like seeing what I’m hearing.’  From the audience reaction of laughter and aww-ing (who knew puppets could be so cute?), it seems viewers appreciated the imagery.

The puppets make the personal stories more relatable and fascinating, and both sections of the film are interesting, but why use this fusion of documentary and fiction in the first place? Charlyne, who during the interview often spoke for herself and Jasenovec, said that the feature’s genre became more convoluted as the project developed. ‘When I asked (Nick) to do it, it was going to be a documentary,’ she said.  ‘I wasn’t planning to be onscreen.’

Charlyne’s strange, strong cynicism about love – Nick laughed before he told her fondly ‘you’re a weirdo’ during the interview – pushed him to focus the film on her first (fictional) experience with love.  This is how, Nick said, ‘Charlyne became the star of the film, Cera was brought onboard, and the project became such a unique genre-bending movie.

Both Nick and Charlyne were young when they started  Paper Heart. Charlyne, the younger of the two, was nineteen when she began panicking about the idea of true love, an anxiety that made her consider making the documentary in the first place.  They had both worked as performers in other mediums, but neither had much filmmaking experience. Despite this, the film does not come across as an amateurish production.  Although it can be a bit scruffy at times, this is only part of its charm.  Charlyne’s puppets are obviously homemade, but the fact that she took the time to make the puppets with her own hands reinforces the theme of love in the film.

Similarly, many of the locations she chose expose the low budget Jasenovec and the crew were working with.  At the festival he and Charlyne were full of stories about the kind of motels they stayed in while travelling, including one that was half burnt down, but still trying to rent out the smoke-laden rooms.  ‘We stayed in the worst motels in America, easy,’ Nick bragged at one point.  From the raggedy construction paper used for the puppets to the sometimes-questionable settings, the film comes across as the labour of love that it was.

The filmmakers make no secret, in the film or in interviews, that  Paper Heart was an independent film. The untidiness this causes, however, works with what the film addresses. While  the project could easily have been  another failed student film, it is the personal love that Charlyne, Nick, and the other filmmakers involved put into it that saves it.  Paper Heart premiered at Sundance this past February, and the London Film Festival is one of its last stops before a worldwide theatrical release.

Genre aside, the central question in the film still looms: is Charlyne’s question answered? Is there such a thing as true love, and does it have a definition?  Nick said that even after a year of filming, and over 300 hours of footage, they never found a definitive answer on love – but they never expected to. ‘There is no answer,’ he said.  Charlyne agreed, ‘I don’t think anyone’s right or wrong.  I mean, I just think everyone’s right in their own mind because I think it is what they believe it is.  Some people believe in love at first sight and that works out for them, while a lot of people think you have to work, get to know them before you fall in love.’

Charlyne does admit that she now believes in love more than she did when she started working on  Paper Heart four years ago, and that the project gave her a different perspective on love.  For university students and young people in generala group often confused about love themselves this film may provide a similar transformative experience.

Despite the lack of a clear answer about true love and its meaning, Paper Heart is an interesting, very hip journey through the hearts of the United States (and parts of Canada and France) with a lot of cute stories to tell, whether real or fictional.  Near the end of the interview, Charlyne returned to her nervousness about the British reaction to the film. ‘I hope they like it,’ she said.  ‘I hope they don’t feel they’re wasting their time or their money.’  As confused as people were when they left London screenings of  Paper Heart, Charlyne has little to worry about – the audience laughed and sighed at the film even more than they scratched their heads.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s