Movies. Reviews. Features.

Flat Pack Shorts

Flatpack 2015: Fairy Tales, Women’s Lib and Magic Cinema

Posted on March 25, 2015

Birmingham’s ninth annual Flatpack Festival kicked off to classic screenings of Ozu’s Walk Cheerfully, Lubitsch’s Trouble In Paradise and the social documentaries of Phillip Donnellan along with brand new features Girlhood and Force Majeure, exhibition openings, an Edwardian horror show and an 8bit technology themed lineup. As festival director Ian Francis describes:
“with 120 events across 30 venues, summing up the whole thing in a couple of paragraphs is pretty much impossible… we kick off in the Jewellery Quarter, occupy the city centre over the first weekend, amble eastwards for the mid-week Swipeside focus, and come to a rest at the Flatpack hub in Digbeth. Everyone who visits the festival picks their own path through this cultural undergrowth.”
It was the opening weekend’s short film schedule that got our festival juices flowing over at Gorilla Film Online. A partnership between Flatpack and Birmingham’s Colmore business district, this Film Bug strand of the festival included eight separate shorts programmes. We chose three, packing in five hours of short film viewing. First up, Fairy Tales, a series of early twentieth century films inspired by folklore, followed by a selection of feminist shorts appropriately titled A Force To Be Reckoned With. We capped off the day with one of our favourite programmes, The Magic Cinema, an open reel event for local, DIY filmmakers. You can check out what I thought of all of these shorts programmes over at Gorilla here. And, in the meantime, here are some of the shorts for you to try. You can find all of my Flatpack 2015 posts here too.

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The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya

The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya: Review

Posted on March 23, 2015

In Japanese animation, The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, a woodcutter finds a baby nestled inside a bamboo shoot. Believing she is destined for nobility, he names her Princess and uproots her from the countryside to the capital city, where she’s courted by dishonest men. Accessible for older children, this latest film from Studio Ghibli is an updated Japanese folktale; a reverse Cinderella that breaks fairytale expectations.
The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya 2

Isao Takahata’s film probes humanity’s obsession with happiness and tendency to equate it with economic success. For women in early Japan, it’s assumed this means becoming a rich man’s property. But the Princess refuses to have her happiness defined this way by an adoptive father who uses her to accomplish his own social progression.
The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya

Takahata’s ideas are both poetically and visually beautiful as humanity’s flaws are magnified in the transition to society. Idyllic pastels, cutesy animals and handmade crafts give way to over-indulgence, pretentious formalities and public beatings in the capital. Delicate watercolours descend into frantic, impressionistic scrawls of grey, black and red as Kaguya flees her suffocating fate. In another etherial scene, she escapes, taking flight above fields, streams and forests like The Snowman.
The Tale Of Princess Kaguya

This wouldn’t be a Studio Ghibli film without a little dreamlike mystery. Here, it’s the surreal exploration of Kaguya’s origins that both establishes and alleviates a bittersweet ending that embraces complex emotional struggle as a part of the human condition. That Kaguya should come to briefly regret her own resistance to society’s conventions somewhat undermines the film’s striking feminism. Yet it feels, at this late stage in the film, that The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya has moved on to address an even deeper philosophical question. That Takahata succeeds in disentangling happiness from the precious nature of life, suggesting we should never wish our existence away, is truly astonishing.

VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 4/5


Certificate: PG
Running time: 137 minutes
UK release date: 20 March 2015
Images: © 2013 Hatake Jimusho – GNDHDDTK

Review first printed in Ashfield & Mansfield Chad

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The Brain Hack

The Brain Hack: Short Film Review

Posted on March 20, 2015

Can a work of art be so precise in design and execution that it can inspire the viewer to see God? This is the question at the centre of The Brain Hack, a short metaphysical thriller from Joseph White (Turn). The goal of filmmaker Harper (Alexander Owen) and computer scientist Fallon (Edward Franklin) is the ultimate fusion of science and religion. It’s an enticing concept and the exposition blends the unsettling aura of Medieval art – angels, demons and tortured souls – with the logical geometry of religious architecture. It’s a sharply edited sequence: rapid-fire images and a ticking clock creating their own symmetry and rhythm.

In a film where God can be reduced to a ‘neurological construct’, a ‘glitch’ in the human brain, there are inevitable repercussions. The short opens on a grainy, frantic hand-held confession foreshadowing events to come. Fallon is stalked by a masked being: the devil perhaps? Or an aggrieved religious sect? White crams a lot into nineteen minutes challenging the morality of organised religion and exploring paranoia. In The Brain Hack, potential plot holes form part of an intentional blurred reality.

The subtle crackling of an analogue recording adds to the eerie mood while giving us succinct character insights, ‘What was it that made me follow Fallon?’ asks Harper, ‘Was it a backlash to my Catholic schooling, the morbidity of faith?’. With a Best Short win at the British Horror Film Festival, this is a slick production. A reflective piano score gradually builds tension with techie motifs. Then there’s the film’s crisp, imaginative visual effects, White’s utilisation of light and shadows and the natural performances from Owen and Franklin. Philosophical with a frenetic pace, The Brain Hack creates its own exciting, mind-bending strand of theology.

Flatpack 2015

Flatpack Film Festival 2015

Posted on March 18, 2015

Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival launches on Thursday with a screening of Ozu’s 1930 classic gangster film Walk Cheerfully. Friday sees a screening of French coming of age drama Girlhood followed by the world premier of John Humphrey’s Birmingham based drama Numbskull. It’s billed as an off-kilter tale of two men with a painful secret (and a talking bug), searching for Shakespeare’s skull.
Flatpack runs for eleven days and includes feature films, a packed short film programme, documentaries, classic screenings and archive footage. Highlights include Iranian horror A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, a special screening of Roy Andersson’s ‘living’ trilogy and a celebration of Philip Donnellan’s social documentaries. There’s also an Edwardian horror show taking place after dark in Birmingham’s museum & art gallery and ‘The Doghouse’, an interactive virtual dinner.
Over the next week I’ll be covering the festival for Gorilla Film Online but I’ll keep the blog updated with links to all of my latest festival reviews and features. In the meantime, you can check out my coverage of last year’s Flatpack here, find this year’s full programme here and watch a two minute video of last year’s festival below.


X+Y: Review

Posted on March 16, 2015

X+Y challenges cinema’s proclivity for autistic geniuses, exploring the pressures this stereotype places on the autistic members of a Mathematics Olympiad.

Nathan (Asa Butterfield) struggles with social awkwardness exacerbated by the death of his father and inability to identify with his mother (Sally Hawkins). Essentially a coming of age tale, Nathan’s autism offers a stimulating perspective on the genre in this first feature from documentary filmmaker Morgan Matthews. The customary ‘first love’ angle goes beyond the familiar boy-becomes-man motif, contributing instead to Nathan’s developing relationship with his mum.
X+Y Asa Butterfield

It’s social distance and the effort it takes to reach one another that lies at the heart of X+Y. Nathan’s maths tutor (Rafe Spall) faces his own social demons as a result of multiple sclerosis, while fellow maths competitor Luke (Jake Davies) disguises his public unease with bravado. Nathan proves unable to stand-up for, or console, his teammate but Morgan elicits a pained silence from Butterfield (Hugo, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas) that reveals his inner struggle. Spall’s charming off-key humour provides X+Y’s poignant laughs but its Butterfield’s quiet attempts to dovetail mathematics with love that delivers the dramatic punch.

Based partly in the populated cities of Taiwan, Morgan (whose 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds followed young maths prodigies) conjures autistic sensory overload in vibrant streetlights which echo and bleed. It’s a spirited aesthetic from a director with much promise, muting all allegations of sentimental calculation on account of his charming cast.

VERDICT: ★★★★ 4/5


Certificate: 12A
Running time: 111 minutes
UK release date: 13 March 2015


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Amour Fou Film

Amour Fou: Review

Posted on March 11, 2015

Amour Fou (‘wild love’) began life as a script about a love induced suicide. Locked in a draw for five years because it ‘was in some way not close enough to life and was too constructed’, it resurfaced when Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner (Lourdes) stumbled on the real life story of poet Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel in nineteenth century Prussia.
Amour Fou Film

The film’s fictional roots are not disguised and those expecting a biopic of von Kleist will be left disappointed. Instead the result is a ‘free adaptation’ that takes liberties with the facts, treats its characters as impressions of historical figures rather than unflinching replicas, and focusses not on Heinrich (Christian Friedel), but the object of his attention, Henriette (Birte Schnoeink). Interestingly, the married Henriette is not Heinrich’s first choice of suicide partner, something that gives his wish a bizarre yet fascinating inconsistency and narcissism. Hausner’s film is skewed to reveal the absurdity in Heinrich’s conviction that the loneliness of life can be escaped through companionship in death. That Hausner (whose filmography majors on female portraits) spends little time probing the minutiae of his dis-satisfaction with life and ill-conceived ideas about love is a significant blemish.

“Hausner’s film is populated with subtext about unobserved female oppression and mental health”

Instead it’s from Henriette’s perspective that mental suffering and inner struggles are most acutely scrutinised. Bodily symptoms of a mystery illness are as confusing to her physicians as those affecting her mind. Hausner is vague: could this melancholy reflect Henriette’s Romantic leanings or is she depressed? Regardless of the interpretation, in the context of early medicine and the study of ‘nervous disorders’, Hausner pierces common misunderstandings that continue to linger. ‘It’s upsetting to have an illness no-one knows or understands,’ says Henriette before Hausner subjects her to ‘magnetic sleep’ and confused physical diagnoses. The film’s levity comes from Henriette’s mother, a resolute cynic whose brief acerbic comments cut through the medical and philosophical ‘nonsense’. Henriette’s mental torture appears in marked contrast to Heinrich’s Romantic, idealised misery. The loneliness he experiences could be solved by a little ‘effort’ argues his cousin. But perhaps we misunderstand him. And perhaps this is Hausner’s cryptic point.Amour Fou Film

That Heinrich desires Henriette to take her own life purely out of devotion to him (and not for any reasons of her own) is enough to erode our sympathy. Yet, Henriette is also drawn to the idea of suicide as a means of controlling her own life. It’s an idea magnified by Hausner’s attention to historical context. While huge losses during the Napoleonic Wars underline the futility of life, it’s the politics of revolutionary France that imbues Hausner’s film with its pensive tone. Prussian serfs are on the verge of freedom and Hausner depicts the aristocracy’s resulting philosophical debates with subtle irony. ‘If only we were spared the democracy where educated people are outvoted by the mob,’ says one self-interested party. Another aristocrat speculates that, if everyone is constrained by fate, then why not let that fate be decided by the knowledgable. The conviction with which these ideas are spoken enhances their absurdity, but Amour Fou can be reduced almost entirely to this desire for control and empowerment, both personal and political. Even Henriette’s husband who expresses a more liberal political view, does so merely in the interest of economics.

Amour Fou can be reduced almost entirely to the desire for control and empowerment, both personal and political”

In spite of an aristocracy clinging to archaic structures, Hausner uses the same era of Romanticism and Enlightenment (at this time the effects of the writings of Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot were still being felt across the French border) to highlight our own fallibility. Amour Fou is filled with ‘mistakes’ made by those supposedly at the forefront of thinking.

Most crucial is Hausner’s subtext revealing unobserved female oppression. Her film opens on Heinrich’s tale of a woman who falls in love with her rapist. It’s a murky interpretation of consent that permeates the entire film. As a woman, Henriette is passive, apparently content to exist as her husband’s ‘property’ and it seems her daughter is fated to tread the same path. It’s possible to read Henriette’s open rejection of a gifted singing career as protesting too much, but her supposition that such fame can only lead to hatred says much about the options open to women. The intentional contrast between the film’s present and ours, replete with contradictions and similarities, is its main attraction, underlined by vivid cinematography and production design that removes us from the comfort-zone of period drama.
Amour Fou Movie

The difficulty with Hausner’s Amour Fou is that its ambitious strands never fully coalesce. Instead, the gulf between aristocratic philosophising, Romantic poetry, mental health and a desire for control is left for audiences to bridge. There’s plenty of space in which to do this, Amour Fou is a slow affair, but with such a perplexing, out of reach male lead the desire to do so may be wanting.


VERDICT: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ 4/5


Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 96 minutes

Images: © 2014 Arrow Films

Now available to stream on Blinkbox and BFI Player


Review written for eclectic movie site Audiences Everywhere. Check it out here.

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In Defence Of Chappie

Posted on March 9, 2015

Chappie director, Neill Blomkamp, has a gift for science-fiction with social-political threads. The segregation of District 9’s aliens paralleled South Africa’s apartheid while Elysium’s space station offered an analogy for asylum and immigration. Now robot Chappie brings child development into focus when he’s captured by a gang of Johannesburg criminals

Set against falling crime rates due to a new robotic police force, it’s Blomkamp’s crudest effort at social commentary with occasional, muddled blind alleys (like what’s the difference between consciousness and the soul?). Chappie is the first sentient robot and possesses a child-like mind, enabling Blomkamp to explore the impact of bullying, exposure to violence and parental manipulation on evolving morality. Will Chappie follow his ‘parents’ into a life of crime? The threads are sometimes confused but Chappie’s belief in his law-breaking guardians evokes human complexity and the difficulties faced in breaking cycles of crime.
Chappie Film

It follows that the most dangerous aspect of artificial intelligence is human influence. It’s an interesting perspective. Moose, Blomkamp’s human operated robot – a killing machine managed remotely by a maniacal Hugh Jackman – confidently alludes to military drones, suggesting humanity is equally dangerous.
Chappie Dev Patel

There’s a peculiar comedy value in watching a naive robot attempt cool but Chappie is filled with familiar Blomkamp misfires: a cliché, action fuelled third act that overshadows his absorbing social themes; and an array of caricature villains, this time provided by South African rappers Die Antwoord. As with Blomkamp’s Elysium, work to see through this surface clutter and Chappie is another charming and rewarding, if less cogent, social satire.


VERDICT: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ 4/5


Certificate: 15
Running Time: 120 minutes
UK Release Date: 6 March 2015

Images: © 2015 CTMG, Inc. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures


Review first printed in Ashfield & Mansfield Chad

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The Making Of Ida

The Making Of Ida: From Script To Screen

Posted on March 7, 2015

Earlier this week, I reviewed Oscar winning Polish film Ida. Director Pawel Pawlikoski’s drama about a nun who discovers her Jewish ancestry arrived on the big screen with one of the most fascinating film-making sagas of the year. It’s likely you’ve already heard some of the stories behind Ida’s production: the casting of a non-actress in the lead role and a halt in filming due to the worst Polish winter in a century.

Pawlikowski has spoken openly about the problems encountered trying to get his film off the ground and the small miracles that enabled it to happen. In this article he wrote for The Guardian, Pawlikowski describes his ‘fluid’ approach and how the film translated from script to screen. The director illustrates his film-making decisions scene by scene, embedding many of them for us to watch. It’s a must read for anyone interested in Ida or film-making more generally, so I simply had to share it here. Be warned though, the article contains spoilers.
Ida Movie

If that piques your interest, then you might like to give this article a look too. Benjamin B, writer for the American Society of Cinematography, discusses Ida’s shot composition, scene lighting and mise en scene illustrated with extracts from the film.

How we made Ida: Pawel Pawlikowski on the journey from script to film – The Guardian
Three scenes from Ida – The American Society of Cinematographers


Ida: Review

Posted on March 3, 2015

Watching the opening frames of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, you’d be forgiven for thinking its restrained visual and aural style (its stark monochrome, single shots and minimal dialogue) were indicative of a bleak but ultimately simple film. Instead, the director of My Summer Of Love and The Woman In The Fifth loads every scene with historical context and intricate ideas about spirituality, faith, identity and violent pasts.

It follows a novice nun, Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), who discovers her Jewish ancestry in 1960s Poland and sets out with Wanda, her only surviving relative, to find and bury her parents. At face value, the road trip at the heart of Pawlikowski’s film serves as a metaphor for its characters’ emotional journeys, yet the story of Ida, an orphan raised by the Catholic church and now residing in a remote nunnery, enables Pawlikowski to ask questions that resonate on both personal and political levels. The beauty of his approach is an unvarnished plot and a severe dislike of exposition. Instead Pawlikowski implies historical background from a few brief remarks. Take Ida’s journey to Lodz and Wanda’s reference to family connections in Lublin. Both cities, synonymous with their Jewish ghettos and mass deportations to extermination camps Chelmno and Belzec in occupied Poland, set the context of the Nazi’s decimation of the country and its Jews.

As Wanda (Agata Kulesza) and Ida journey to their family home, now occupied by Christians who insist on their rights to the land, anti-semitism bleeds further into Pawlikowski’s film. Stalinism is keenly felt too, signaled by Wanda’s own Stalinist crimes. The musings of a saxophonist and alluring jazz melodies suggest the mood is shifting, but this is not a version of the 1960s that the western world will easily recognise.

“Not simply a film about the Holocaust but a meditation on violent histories & the passage of time”

Despite being on the festival circuit since Autumn 2013, it’s pertinent that Ida should win an Oscar in the seventieth year since the liberation of Auschwitz and in the same year that Night Will Fall (André Singer’s film documenting the death camps in original, visceral footage) should finally appear on television. Ida is not simply a film about the Holocaust but a meditation on violent histories and the passage of time. It is our relationship with images from history, often so abhorrent they are incomprehensible, that Pawlikowski explores. The character of the sheltered and naive Ida and her journey of self-discovery encapsulates our relationship with histories we cannot ever fully know, while Wanda, forced to face up to her own war-time past and experience of Stalinist reconstruction has been read as a metaphor for Poland itself. Underlining this personal element of his film, Pawlikowski sends Ida’s parents not to the gas chambers but to an intimate death where they come face to face with their murderer.

Just as history is embedded within Pawlikowski’s characters, so too is the conflict between Christianity and Judaism manifested in Ida’s internal struggle, coming of age confusion and developing relationship with her Aunt. Pawlikowski leaves room here for a little gaiety as Wanda quizzes Ida on her sinful thoughts. Yet even this polarity is underscored later when Wanda likens her own impulsiveness and effortless sexuality with Mary Magdalene, sparking a ‘beast’ of a reaction from Ida.
Ida Film

At its most personal level, Ida is a penetrating story of two women on a journey of self-discovery but God is never far away. Faith can be felt in the film’s Catholic imagery and heirloom stained glass window, while Ida’s similarity to her mother suggests the transparency of organized religion. Reminiscent of Bergman in his balancing of character with meditation on faith, Pawlikowski’s casting of non-actor Agata Trzebuchowska against experienced performer Agata Kulesza is a stroke of genius. Trzebuchowska’s calm unflinching exterior keeps us guessing and contributes substantially to the film’s ambiguity.

Despite Ida’s obvious historical themes (emphasized by the bleak black and white cinematography that depicts a broken, worn out Poland and a sharp contrast to western ideas of the 60s), Pawlikowski has spoken a great deal about ‘the permanent present tense’. It’s a contradiction of Ida’s visual style that it appears to resemble both original post-war footage and to create an almost dream-like atmosphere, which ensures a feeling of relevance.
Ida Movie

Shot in the narrow aspect ratio of 4:3 Ida constantly reminds us of its difference from real life. Another of this year’s Oscar nominated films, The Grand Budapest Hotel, also utilized the 4:3 aspect ratio and it’s interesting that both received nominations for their cinematography. By eschewing frequent cutting and holding characters in a single shot at a single angle, Pawlikowski creates the polar opposite of Anderson’s fantasy infused film, every frame invoking simplicity and an emotional response. Characters appear to walk out of the frame or are positioned at the very bottom of it, the empty space surrounding them invoking the idea that ‘God is everywhere’. Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s cinematography is a master-stroke that unites Ida’s complexity, its political and spiritual themes with its personal exploration of history.


VERDICT: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ 5/5


Certificate: 15

Running Time: 82 minutes

Now available on DVD & Blu-Ray from Artificial Eye

Images: © 2014 – Artificial Eye


Review written for eclectic movie site Audiences Everywhere. Check it out here.

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