Shorts of FilmBath Festival 2019

Across the 2019 FilmBath Festival programme, 46 short films were screened — 23 attached to feature films, 17 at a dedicated ‘Shorts Showcase’, and six at the IMDb New Filmmaker Award ceremony (five in competition, one the film made from the winning screenplay of the IMDb Script to Screen Award). I saw 14 of these, one way or another, and have compiled my reviews into this (commensurately long) post.

First, the five films that competed for the IMDb New Filmmaker Award.

Gladiators on Wheels

The winner chosen by the judges was Gladiators on Wheels (2019, Souvid Datta, UK & India, Hindi, 6 mins, ★★★★☆), a documentary about the ‘Well of Death’ — an attraction at Indian circuses where daredevils ride motorbikes and drive cars around 60ft vertical walls, literally defying gravity. It’s both impressive and terrifying, especially considering they’re doing it without any kind of safety gear — no helmets or padded suits here, never mind nets or something. But the film isn’t just about the actual act, also touching on the way of life, and how its fading. It’s a well-shot bit of filmmaking, especially impressive when you learn it was all filmed in a single day. The script was compiled from interviews with the drivers, then voiced by actors, but if anything it’s a little cliché — lots of talk of “living on the edge” and how dangerous it is but how they wouldn’t have it any other way, etc. Still, like many of the best documentaries, it’s a fascinating glimpse at another world.

The audience at the ceremony also got a say, favouring Hey You (2019, Jared Watmuff, UK, English, 5 mins, ★★★★★), which is about gay men hooking up via text messaging. At first it feels like a lightly comedic bit of fun, possibly with some drama in that one of the men is closeted, but then it develops into something more serious. It’s a very well made short, in particular the shot choices and editing at the climax, which combine to produce some incredibly striking imagery. It’s tricky to say why it’s such an effective and vital film without spoiling where it goes in that finale, but it’s a meaningful piece that’s worth seeing if you can. It would’ve been a worthy winner.

Facing It

The three other finalists were … Tight Spot (2018, Kevin Haefelin, USA & Switzerland, English, 4 mins, ★★★★☆), a comedy bit about a shoe shiner and a suspicious customer, which was amusing albeit a little predictable; although it did, again, look nice … When Voices Unite (2017, Lewis Coates, UK, English, 4 mins, ★★★☆☆), a mini tech thriller that was suitably tense in places, but really needed some kind of twist or final development to give it a reason to exist … and Facing It (2018, Sam Gainsborough, UK, 8 mins, ★★★★★), which presented an imaginative visualisation of a relatable social difficulty. Rendered in a mix of live-action and stop-motion animation, it’s by far the most technically impressive short here, but all in service of telling its story and conveying the requisite emotion. Another one that would’ve been a more than worthy winner.

(You can watch Gladiators on Wheels and When Voices Unite on Vimeo. Sadly the others aren’t publicly available, although there is a short making-of for Facing It which I recommend for appreciating the filmmaking skill on display there.)

Of the other shorts I saw, my favourite was definitely Pleased to Eat You! (2019, Adrian Hedgecock, UK, English, 7 mins, ★★★★★). It’s a beautifully designed and hilariously funny musical comedy short… about cannibalism! Its colourful and clever staging evokes the handmade movie-reality worlds seen in films by the likes of Michel Gondry or Charlie Kaufman, while the full-blown song-and-dance number is like the best of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, albeit twinned with a pun-filled cheekiness in its subject matter. An absolute delight from beginning to end.

Pleased to Eat You!

If I were to rank all the other shorts too, I’d probably put Woman in Stall (2018, Dusty Mancinelli & Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Canada & UK, English, 10 mins, ★★★★☆) in second place. A very timely thriller, it sees a woman innocently enter a public bathroom cubicle to get changed, only for a man to turn up outside and start chatting, her wariness of him trapping her inside. Is he a predator she’s right to fear? Or is she just being paranoid? Part of the short’s cleverness lies in the way it plays with our emotions and expectations, swinging us back and forth into where our trust should lie. Working with a limited setting, it’s neatly shot — never dull, but without going OTT to try to jazz things up — and gets edge-of-your-seat tense as it goes on. Regular readers will know how much I love a “single location thriller”, and this is a perfect mini example of the form.

Quince: Fifteen (2018, Peiman Zekavat, UK & Peru, Spanish, 10 mins, ★★★★☆) is a real-time single-shot drama about a 15-year-old Peruvian schoolgirl whose carefree PE lesson turns into a tumult of life-upending dismay in just a few minutes following an unexpected discovery on social media. It’s another timely issue, and this is mostly a well-made short — I do love a single take, and the real-time aspect puts you in her shoes quite effectively. Unfortunately, it’s a bit inconclusive — it just stops, with no hint of how she’s going to deal with her new problem longer term, or what’s going to happen to her beyond a handful of initial reactions. It’s not bad as it is, but there’s also more to be told here.

Quince: Fifteen

On a snowy winter’s day, a postie makes his rounds on a London estate. Meanwhile, one woman anxiously awaits his arrival… With its brief running time, Special Delivery (2018, Robert Hackett, UK, 4 mins, ★★★★☆) almost feels like an extended edit of one of those soppy commercials the big retailers always put out at Christmas — you know, the ones that have just started to pop up on the telly. Nicely shot in 2.35:1, it evokes a Christmassy feel without being overtly festive, and manages to avoid becoming quite as saccharine as those adverts, instead earning the story’s sentimentality. A sweet little slice of romance.

Coming just behind those frontrunners would be Spooning (2019, Rebecca Applebaum, Canada, English, 6 mins, ★★★★☆), a one-woman-show of a mockumentary about a theatre actress who specialises in playing spoons. Not “playing the spoons”, like a musical instrument, but anthropomorphised spoons, like in Beauty and the Beast. It’s basically a comedy sketch as a short film, but it was largely funny so I don’t begrudge it that.

I’m six films deep into this loose ranking now, but that’s not to discredit Allan + Waspy (2019, James Miller, UK, English, 8 mins, ★★★★☆). It’s about two working class schoolboys who hang out in the woods on their way to school each day, observing a bird’s nest full of chicks hatching and maturing — but one of the lads clearly has problems at home, and it all takes a very dark turn. Initially it’s a likeable slice-of-modern-life tale, managing to find an element of old-fashioned bucolic childhood even in a modern inner-city setting, and unfurling at a gentle pace by mixing shots of the surrounding world into the boys’ activities. But then there’s a thoroughly glum ending. It kinda ruined my day, but I liked it as a film nonetheless.

Cumulus

A young Welsh girl runs off from her dad and encounters a talking gull who’s worried about his kids leaving home in animation Cumulus (2018, Ioan Holland, UK, English, 9 mins, ★★★☆☆). Naturally, they both learn something from each other. It’s always nice to see 2D animation nowadays, especially when it’s as prettily designed as this, though it’s a shame that some of the movement is a little stilted and animatic-y. It’s also a bit longer/slower than it needs to be, but it’s still mostly charming.

Perhaps the most disappointing short was My Theatre (2019, Kazuya Ashizawa, Japan, 5 mins, ★★★☆☆), a documentary about an 81-year-old in Fukushima who closed his cinema 55 years ago but keeps it alive as a kind of museum. That’s mainly what I gathered from reading blurbs before viewing, though, because the short itself lacks any real context or conclusion, just presenting vignettes of life in this rundown old movie house. It’s perfectly pleasant, but ultimately unenlightening. My Theatre is listed on other festivals’ websites as running 20 minutes, so perhaps the five-minute version submitted to FilmBath is just an excerpt — that’s certainly what it felt like. A longer edit, with more of a sense of why this is a place and person worth observing, would’ve been better.

Finally, Terra (2019, Daniel Fickle, USA, English, 6 mins, ★★☆☆☆), which received some very negative feedback from a few audience members who didn’t feel it was appropriate for the film it was screened before, Honeyland. That’s a documentary about a traditional European way of beekeeping on the wane, whereas Terra is ostensibly about the tumultuous romantic relationship between two young Americans. The clue is in the title, though: it’s a metaphor for humankind’s relationship with Earth. Personally, I thought the analogy was a bit on the nose, but it seems others missed it entirely. The photography is quite pretty, in a no-budget-indie-drama kinda way, but other than that I didn’t think there was much to it. Other members of the FilmBath team were more impressed, so I think it’s fair to say it’s a divisive little number.

Terra

As I said at the start, there were 46 shorts screened at the festival, so this is just a small sampling of what was on offer (less than a third, to be precise). Although I didn’t love them all, I did enjoy most — and considering they would have entirely passed me by were it not for the festival, I’ll definitely take the handful of letdowns as part of the parcel for getting the good stuff.

Downton Abbey (2019)

2019 #128
Michael Engler | 122 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

Downton Abbey

As the 2020s loom, with the world in a scary old place for a whole host of reasons, why not retreat to the safety of the 1920s, when posh toffs ran the country because their birthright had put them there rather than because the hoi polloi had actually chosen to vote for them in some act of retrograde nationalism. Downton Abbey does actually feature a subplot where a group of working-class servants secretly plot to overthrow the system… but the system in question is the one about who gets to serve the King and Queen their dinner. The working classes fighting amongst themselves about something fundamentally unimportant while the upper classes carry on serenely above them? It’s almost allegorical, although I suspect not on purpose.

No, like the TV show it’s a sequel to, Downton Abbey is much too busy being a comforting blanket of “it was better in the old days” jollity to bother with social commentary. Creator/screenwriter Julian Fellowes throws in the odd nod to more progressive concerns (republicanism, LGBT rights, the fading fortunes and relevance of the aristocracy), but they’re no more than hat-tips in the general direction of modernity. It’s as if he’s trying to say, “yes, I know this is all terribly outdated,” before adding, “but why don’t we just enjoy it for a bit, eh?” Well, we do all need an escape into fantasy sometimes, and not everyone likes it in the form of a bespandexed private army battling purple aliens.

Certainly, you’ll need to be prepared to engage with the concerns of this rarefied world if you want to find any drama here, where major points of jeopardy include whether there’s enough time to polish all the silver and if they can manage to put some chairs out while it’s raining. Sure, there are subplots including things like an assassination attempt and a police raid on a gay bar, but they’re not treated as being nearly so significant as who cooks dinner.

Polishing the silver. Not a euphemism.

So, yes, it’s mostly puff about pomp and pageantry — if you were after a film to perfectly encapsulate “heritage cinema”, you could hardly do better. But who would’ve expected anything else? Surely we’re all familiar with the TV series, even if you’ve never seen it, and naturally this big-screen version continues in a similar vein. At its core the series was really just a posh soap, and that style of melodrama is recreated here also: the engaged kitchen maid’s eye is caught by a hunky plumber; what’s behind the uncommonly close relationship between the Queen’s lady-in-waiting and her maid; will someone’s new royal appointment force them to miss the birth of their child; and so on.

If it’s beginning to sound like there are a lot of different storylines, well, there are. That’s another legacy of it originally being an ensemble TV show, of course: there’s a big, broad cast and every character must be given their due. Consequently, some reviews have accused the film of having no story, which I think is unfair. The primary plot is simple — literally just “the King and Queen visit Downton Abbey” — but it’s there. And the way the film chooses to depict this story — as a collage of subplots that, as a collective, show how the visit is prepared for and executed from the perspectives of a variety of roles at every level — is hardly an unheard of cinematic format for providing an overview of an event or situation. The reason for Downton taking this approach are rooted in its televisual origins, but if you wanted to consider it divorced from that context then you’d merely see a structural similarity to something like Nashville, for example.

Of course, the fact that Downton is a sequel to a six-season TV series is something most of us won’t ignore, whether because you’re a dedicated viewer coming to this as the 53rd episode, or you’re a neophyte with a background awareness that anything you don’t understand may be because it was explained in the TV show. I find myself in the slightly unusual position of someone who straddles both these stools: I stopped watching somewhere in the third series, so I know who most of the characters are and where their stories began, but I’m unaware of what went on for them in later years and who some of the later additions are. Fortunately, the highly structured class divide of the setting makes it easy to get a grasp on most things. Characters’ backgrounds are not as clearly explained as you’d expect to find in a truly standalone movie, but I think the fundamentals can be ascertained well enough. That said, I say that as someone who had a leg up from watching some of the series, so a total newcomer may find it more bewildering.

What's the deference?

One thing that’s interesting, returning to this world as someone who skipped a few years of it, is how much the emphasis has changed in places. By which I mean, some characters who once had a major are now given short shrift. For example, Hugh Bonneville has always been the de facto lead face of the programme, which makes sense as he’s Lord Grantham, head of the Downton household; and he’s still top billed in the opening credits, although I think that may be more a happy accident (I believe it listed the entire returning series cast in alphabetical order) than an indication of status. Either way, he has very little to do here, with other cast members taking centre stage. The real headliner in the series was always Maggie Smith’s acerbic Dowager Countess, and that continues to be the case here, as she snags both the lion’s share of the funny lines and the film’s most genuinely emotional scene. It feels like something of an ode to the venerable actress herself as much as it is a bit of in-universe business, and who could really begrudge such merited reverence? As to the rest of the cast, there are plenty of reviews out there that approach the film in more detail from either a fan or newbie perspective, so if you’re interested in specifics it may be worth seeking those out.

Some might argue this movie could’ve just as well turned up as a TV special, and, story-wise, it’s hard to disagree. Nonetheless, director Michael Engler and DP Ben Smithard have given proceedings a bit of big-screen pizzazz, using a 2.39:1 frame to accentuate grander shot choices and occasional cinematic flourishes, and much of the photography exhibits a warm-sunlight glow that makes you wonder if they somehow shot the whole thing during golden hour. And while too many big-screen re-dos ignore the emotive power of familiar music (see the Spooks movie for one where I specifically complained about it, for instance), here composer David Lunn’s familiar Downton theme is used to striking effect. I must admit that, even as someone who didn’t stick with the series and hasn’t watched it for years, the opening minutes gave me goosebumps.

Is the sun setting on this empire?

Truth be told, that’s not a terrible analogy for my reaction to the movie as a whole. Its near-fetishisation of regressive social modes should be distasteful, and some of its soapy scenes are accompanied by clunky dialogue and stiff acting that make it feel like you’re watching a period-dress episode of Coronation Street; but it can also unleash a sharp wit or well-constructed bit of farce (I laughed often), and there’s a certain majesty to the scenic, pretty-postcard photography that sweeps you up into its less complicated world. If you take it for what it is — a portrait of a time gone by — then it’s a likeable little jaunt.

4 out of 5

Downton Abbey is in cinemas now.

Their Finest (2016)

2018 #223
Lone Scherfig | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Sweden / English | 12 / R*

Their Finest

One of three Dunkirk-related movies released in 2017 (which is a bit random — it wasn’t a particular anniversary or anything), Their Finest is adapted from a novel by Lissa Evans called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is a much better title. “Their Finest” is kinda bland and meaningless — slap it on any wartime film and it’d work just as well. The original title is a neat pun, though, mixing the famous saying (which comes from a 1940 Churchill speech, if you didn’t know) with the common running time of a movie, thereby indicating when the story is set (World War 2), what it’s about (the making of movies), and indicating a tone (it’s a pun, but not an outrageous one, suggesting lightness without going full-blown comedy). Maybe someone noticed this runs nearer two hours and didn’t want to give audiences the wrong idea…

Their Finest Hour and a Half stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a young woman in wartime London who finds work writing female characters’ dialogue in movies — “the slop”, as it’s derisively called by her combative superior, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). When a news story about twin sisters who took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk is fast-tracked into production, with a cast that includes fading leading man Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Catrin and Tom wind up on location with the film, hastily rewriting to include changes mandated by the War Office. Despite Tom’s standoffish attitude and Catrin’s marriage to a good-for-nothing war artist (Jack Huston), who’s jealous of her newfound status as the breadwinner, affection begins to blossom between the two writers…

Hooray for the writers!

Yeah, much of Their Finest follows the expected shape of a story like this (the love triangle; the woman coming to be respected by her initially dubious colleagues; etc). Two things work to stop it feeling too staid: an engaging lead cast, and some weightier developments and subplots. The latter includes at least one wholly unexpected twist, which helps make this a more powerful film than the potentially-light “people go on a jolly to make a movie during the war” premise initially seems. There’s a somewhat classical balance of comedy and tragedy there, which is reminiscent of movies from the era the film’s set. Frame it in 4:3, shoot in black & white, and give everyone RP accents, and parts of it could almost be a ’40s melodrama.

Talking of accents, why oh why did they lumber Gemma Arterton with a Welsh one? It isn’t bad, exactly, but I did find it constantly distracting. Presumably it’s because the story is loosely based on the life of Diana Morgan, a Welsh screenwriter whose wartime work for Ealing Studios mostly went uncredited (though she does have one on the famous propaganda film Went the Day Well?, amongst a handful of others), but, considering it’s not actually a biopic, surely there’s no need for the accent? Well, other than to attract funding from the Welsh Government’s Media Investment Budget, I suspect… Anyway, it’s a minor complaint (as I said, her accent isn’t bad), and even with it Arterton is typically charming, generating good chemistry with Claflin, who plays a Mr Darcy-esque role as the initially-unlikeable inevitable love interest. As usual, Nighy threatens to steal the show, hamming it up just the right amount as Ambrose. He gets a significant subplot about his hard-fought transition from leading man to character actor, which also brings in Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory — just two more high-quality actors helping round out a strong cast, which also includes Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, and Jeremy Irons, among others.

She's holding a pencil, she must be a writer

Ambrose is another man who initially misreads Catrin but eventually comes round to her. I suppose the “a woman proves her worth” element is another that’s been well-worn, but it seems fitting here, given that women in the film industry are still struggling to be treated equally. In this case, it’s using the “women suddenly in the workplace” reality of WW2 to make it both feel relevant to the present while remaining era-appropriate, unlike so many period movies that project present-day values onto eras where they don’t truly fit. It’s not as heavy-handed in its moralising as others can be, either.

Indeed, I’d say the entire film is very well pitched. It straddles the comedy-drama divide skilfully, entertaining as a jolly romance set in the world of moviemaking, but with enough grit from the reality of wartime to give it an edge. Everyone involved has, I’m sure, given it their finest hour-and-a-half(-and-a-half).

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Their Finest is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm.

* It’s rated R for “some language and a scene of sexuality” — there’s a couple of “fucking”s and a brief glimpse of one practically-silhouetted breast. God, the MPAA are daft. ^

Resident Evil (2002)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Resident Evil

Survive the horror

Also Known As: Biohazard (in Japan — the film uses the original title of the game it’s based on in the country it originated from, appropriately enough.)

Country: Germany, UK, France & USA*
Language: English
Runtime: 100 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R
* The end credits call it “a German/British co-production”. IMDb adds the other two.

Original Release: 15th March 2002 (USA)
UK Release: 12th July 2002
Budget: $33 million
Worldwide Gross: $102.98 million

Stars
Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element, Hellboy)
Michelle Rodriguez (The Fast and the Furious, Avatar)
Eric Mabius (Cruel Intentions, The Crow: Salvation)
James Purefoy (Mansfield Park, Solomon Kane)

Director
Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon, AVP: Alien vs. Predator)

Screenwriter
Paul W.S. Anderson (Shopping, Death Race)

Based on
Resident Evil, a video game by Capcom, directed by Shinji Mikami.


The Story
After a virus kills all the employees at the underground research facility of Umbrella Corporation, a team of commandos are sent in to contain the outbreak. But to do that they’ll have to fight the facility’s megalomaniacal supercomputer, plus all the employees, who aren’t exactly dead after all…

Our Hero
Alice wakes up in her mansion with total amnesia… but soon a bunch of military operatives are whisking her along into a life-or-death situation, which it turns out she’s equally trained for herself.

Our Villains
The undead! Hordes of ’em, as always. Plus an evil supercomputer who controls the entire facility and speaks with the voice of a little girl, because why not. Oh, and we know someone deliberately released the virus — could they now be part of the team investigating the facility? Hmm, I wonder…

Best Supporting Character
Rain is just one of the commandos, but, as played by co-billed Michelle Rodriguez, she gets the lion’s share of the best lines. (I mean, the dialogue is hardly sparkling, but what good lines there are, she gets. Maybe it’s all in the delivery.)

Memorable Quote
Rain: “All the people that were working here are dead.”
Spence: “Well, that isn’t stopping them from walking around.”

Memorable Scene
With the team separated, Alice is exploring the facility alone and comes across some empty animal cages… and, shortly thereafter, the dogs that used to live in them… who are now zombie-dogs out to eat her, obviously. It’s mainly memorable for this bit:

Memorable Music
The score, co-credited to habitual genre composer Marco Beltrami and Goth rocker Marilyn Manson, was explicitly influenced by John Carpenter’s early electronic work, albeit given a very ’00s techno/rock spin by Manson.

Letting the Side Down
There’s so much stuff some would put in this category, but the main jarring point is some middling ’00s CGI. It’s not outright bad (like, say, the Rock-scorpion-thing in The Mummy Returns), but it definitely shows its age.

Previously on…
The first Resident Evil video game was released in 1996. The film is more “inspired by” than adapted from it. Multiple sequels to it came out before the movie finally hit the big screen, and even more have followed since, not to mention various spin-off novels, comics, animated films, and other stuff, like a themed restaurant in Tokyo.

Next time…
Five sequels followed over the next 14 years. Before the series-concluding final film had even made it to home media, a reboot was announced. That’s gotta be some kinda record, even for Hollywood.

Awards
2 Saturn Award nominations (Horror Film, Actress (Milla Jovovich))
3 Golden Schmoes nominations (Most Underrated Movie of the Year, Horror Movie of the Year, Best T&A of the Year — you might read that last category and think “only in the ’00s!”, but I checked and they still award it today)

Verdict

Writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson has managed to sustain a lasting career out of making movies no one seems to really like. With a CV full of video game movies (Mortal Kombat, multiple Resident Evils, the forthcoming Monster Hunter), and B-movie do-overs (Death Race) and emulations (AVP), he’s a bit like a bigger-budgeted, less-objectionable version of Uwe Boll (remember him?). Anyway, the first Resident Evil is actually one of his better efforts. I’ve never played any of the games so have no idea of its faithfulness (“not very” is my impression), but Anderson took inspiration from early John Carpenter movies to create a lean action/thriller/horror flick (again, leaning into those B-movies), which drives the viewer from set piece to set piece with quickly-sketched characterisation (or, in many cases, none at all) and a mysterious backstory to be uncovered. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a solid 90-minutes-and-change genre fix.

Cotton Wool (2017)

2019 #50a
Nicholas Connor | 38 mins | download (UHD) | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 12A

Cotton Wool

After single mum Rachel (Leanne Best) suffers a debilitating stroke, it marks a massive change for her two kids, stroppy teenager Jennifer (Katie Quinn) and sweet seven-year-old Sam (Max Vento): with no other family and minimal support from the authorities, it’s suddenly up to the kids to care for their mum.

As a closing title card informs us, there are around 243,000 carers under the age of 19 in England and Wales alone, with 22,000 of those under the age of nine. Writer-director Nicholas Connor’s short film seeks to highlight this issue — it’s quite shocking how many young lives are affected by the need to look after other family members because there’s no one else to do it. But the short is also “inspired by their courage”, and so it strikes an optimistic tone about the power of love and the value of family, rather than spending too much time in condemnation of a system that leaves these youngsters largely unsupported.

If you watch things like the BBC’s annual Children in Need telethon, these kind of facts and situations might be familiar — it’s the kind of thing they cover in short documentaries during the evening. Connor’s film differs thanks to the advantages of fictional storytelling: rather than just informing the viewer of facts and statistics, Cotton Wool connects us to the characters and explores the subject from different angles. The new life thrust unasked upon Rachel, Jennifer, and Sam affects them each differently, and Connor uses that to find generality in specificity: rather than tell us about all 243,000 young carers and the people they look after, here are three individuals who each struggle and cope in different ways.

Simply Leanne Best

In particular, the film presents a clear but not heavy-handed difference between the behaviour of the two kids: Jennifer professes that she helps around the house, but is really more concerned with escaping out with her mates, with maintaining her own life; Sam, meanwhile, does all that he can to look after his mum. It’s easy to see that Jennifer is ‘in the wrong’, but, again, the film doesn’t go out of its way to condemn her. She’s not a bad person, just conflicted. Her storyline culminates in a teary scene in bed where she talks about admiring everything her mum did for them, which is the nearest the film got to being too on-the-nose for me. Conversely, Sam’s storyline maintains a degree of understatement. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment comes when he has a one-to-one chat with a care worker who notices the space paraphernalia around Sam’s room. Asked if he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up, Sam instead says he wants to care for his mum.

However, the best performance of the trio comes from Best (pun not intended!) With Rachel physically debilitated after her stroke, Best is stuck with a limited range of speech and movement, but still conveys a wealth of emotion while not at any point letting the effects of her condition slip. The film has won a variety of awards at film festivals around the world, including several of Best’s performance, and it’s well deserved.

It’s a handsomely mounted production all round. I don’t watch many shorts, really, so can’t make a fair comparison, but it doesn’t look cheap or limited in the way you might expect of a low-budget short. There are some very effectively staged moments, in particular the two strokes — the first a handheld, almost scary event seen from Sam’s eye level; the second a trippy, tense nightmare. Much of the film is shot with a sort of hazy beauty by DP Alan C. McLaughlin, and the wintery Yorkshire countryside locations help emphasise the isolation of the family.

Hazy shade of winter

As a calling card for the young writer-director, it could hardly be better. At the risk of making us all despair at the state of our lives, he made this when he was just 17, but it suggests a maturity of approach beyond that. There’s a certain lightness of touch in the storytelling that doesn’t ram home the hardship of the kids’ situation or the juxtaposition of their behaviour, and he refrains from the polemicising you might expect to find in an issue-driven short by a filmmaker of any age.

I’ve avoided mentioning it thus far, but it’s hard not to make comparisons to another recent British short film about a child coping with disability-related adversity in a chilly Northern setting, The Silent Child. That, of course, won an Oscar, and I’d say Cotton Wool is at least its equal.

4 out of 5

More information about Cotton Wool can be found on the director’s website, here.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

2019 #45
Lynne Ramsay | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 15 / R

You Were Never Really Here

Writer-director Lynne Ramsay tackled serious dramatic subjects in her previous features (none of which I’ve seen, I’m ashamed to say, so I apologise if my “this is a change of direction” intro is off base), but here shifts into genre mode to adapt Jonathan Ames’ noir-ish crime-thriller novella, albeit while retaining a good deal of the arthouse idiosyncrasy you’d expect.

The film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle-aged-or-so guy who lives with is elderly ailing mother (Judith Roberts), and seems even more tired of life than she is, plagued by memories of things he’s witnessed. That history has given Joe a (as Liam Neeson would put it) very particular set of skills, which nowadays he puts to use for private clients, via multiple middle men, primarily (or wholly — the film doesn’t clarify) to rescue abducted children. But when he’s hired to rescue a US senator’s wayward teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), things end up going sideways in unforeseen ways.

Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer. He uses it to take out multiple Very Bad Men in this film. But if the combination of “genre: thriller” and “using a hammer to take out bad men” makes you think You Were Never Really Here is about to unleash a low-budget action-fest upon your eyeballs, I refer you back to the writer-director being Lynne Ramsay and my mention of “arthouse idiosyncrasies”. I thought I’d mention this point upfront because I’ve seen others be disappointed by the lack of overt action in the film. Ramsay has instead chosen to keep most of the violence offscreen — we sometimes see the build-up or the aftermath, or both, or maybe neither, but only rarely the act itself. It’s not that kind of movie. And that’s not a problem, so long as you’re not expecting those kind of kicks.

Much to think about alone

Instead, the film becomes more of a character portrait, interrogating who Joe is and why. What kind of man does a job like that? What events in his life brought him here? What toll does it take on him? Or is there no toll because the damage has already been done? Explicitly writing these questions, which the film does seek to consider, causes me to question the worth of a serious-minded exploration of such a character’s psyche. It makes me wonder: are there real-life people like Joe? Does anyone actually do this job in the real world? Is the universe Joe moves in — a netherworld, parallel to our own but hiding from everyday view — a true one, or just the stuff that fills genre fiction? And if the answer to “is this real?” is a “no” — if these characters, situations, and environments are all just genre fodder — is there value in getting psychologically real about it?

Some would say “no”, because we don’t necessarily come to this kind of genre fiction for realism, even when it’s given a dark or gritty spin. I mean, take a slight genre sidestep into something like Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, for an example: they’re shot with a documentary-esque style, but no one thinks they’re plausible portraits of real life espionage activities. Stories like You Were Never Really Here have a greater reality claim than that, but I still question their actual adherence to our real world. But surely these extreme spins on reality are invented, at least in part, to justify simultaneously inventing heroes to put into them, who can then sort it all out by wielding some weaponry and special skills that we might not accept in a totally true-to-life story-world.

Much to think about together

Maybe I’m over-theorising this now. But You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that leaves gaps to invite you to think about it, to fill in your interpretations and personal notions. It’s a film with a lot of quiet space — literally, in the sense of its often minimal dialogue and, shorn of action scenes, little of the thudding and thumping you’d expect in the sound department; but also figuratively, with long scenes that make room for you to think about what you’re witnessing; scenes that don’t hand-feed you every piece of information, so you put it together yourself. (If you want an example: no one ever tells you where Joe got his skills, but flashbacks give you visual clues to put it together.) Maybe the film isn’t trying to say “guys like this exist outside of genre pieces, and they’re like this” — maybe it’s saying “if guys like this existed outside of genre pieces, what would they really be like?”

In the source novel, the title is explained via Joe’s methods: he uses fake identities, surgical gloves, and hides from cameras, all so that he was “never really there”. In the film he’s more low-tech and somewhat less scrupulous, meaning the same explanation doesn’t quite wash. I thought perhaps Ramsay meant it to have a new, arty meaning. Maybe it doesn’t — maybe it’s just the title of the book, so it stayed. Or maybe everything I’ve written is right, and people like Joe were never really here, in the real world… but if they were, they’d probably be like this.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of You Were Never Really Here is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

Black Narcissus (1947)

2018 #49
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | UK / English | U

Black Narcissus

It’s over a year since I watched Black Narcissus, but this review is only materialising now for two reasons: first, my overall tardiness at posting reviews nowadays (my backlog currently numbers north of 140); and second, but actually more relevant, I’ve struggled to make sense of what I thought of it.

On the surface a story about some nuns opening a convent in the Himalayas, there’s so much more going on beneath the film’s surface than just conflicts with locals and amongst the small group of nuns — that much is clear. But what else is going on? Critics often talk about the film’s eroticism, but (even allowing for the fact it was made in 1947 and so could hardly be overt about such things) I rarely felt that. In his video introduction on the Criterion Blu-ray, Bertrand Tavernier says it’s all about desire, specifically female desire, and the prohibition of said desire. Hm. I mean, I don’t disagree that’s in there somewhere, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what it’s “all about”. Writing in Criterion’s booklet (reproduced online here, critic Kent Jones says that “the reduction of Black Narcissus by admirers and detractors (and cocreators!) alike to the three Es — expressionist, exotic […] and erotic — has often deprived this bracing film of its many nuances and complexities.” So, I’m not alone in thinking there’s other stuff going on here… though I’d wager Mr Jones has a better handle on what that is exactly than I do.

I confess, I find this a bit frustrating — not the film itself, but my inability to ‘get’ it. I was never bored, so something kept me engaged, there’s something to it, but I can’t get at what this is. I felt a bit like there’s a germ of a good thing, but it’s not brought out. Like, the characters all being gradually driven mad or hysterical by the place — it’s an effect that’s almost there, but not quite; and it only affects, like, two-and-a-half of them anyway. But maybe I’m expecting the film to be too overt; maybe it was just too subtle for me. Whatever it is, it clearly disturbed the Christians: when the film was released in the US, Catholic weekly The Tidings reportedly asserted that “it is a long time since the American public has been handed such a perverted specimen of bad taste, vicious inaccuracies and ludicrous improbabilities.” Reason enough to like the film, there.

Nuns gone wild

Oh, but my overall confusion aside, there are many specifics that deserve concrete praise. The last 10 or 20 minutes, when it almost turns into a kind of horror movie, are fantastic. (Even the original trailer is largely composed of footage from the film’s final 25 minutes. It’s definitely the best bit.) It all looks ravishing, magnificently shot and designed. There’s the always-stunning work of DP Jack Cardiff (apparently a Technicolor executive claimed the film was the best example of the process), plus the work of production designer Alfred Junge and costumer Hein Heckroth. The luscious backdrops were blown-up black-and-white photos that the art department coloured with pastel chalks, which partly explains the film’s otherworldly beauty. Indeed, considering it was all shot in the UK, the location is very well evoked. That’s not least thanks to the constantly blowing wind, which ruffles clothing and hangings even during interior scenes — a detail that could’ve been easily overlooked during production, but whose presence certainly adds to the atmosphere.

It’s difficult to sum up and rate my reaction to Black Narcissus, because I feel like I missed something — not literally (I followed the plot ‘n’ that), but like I didn’t understand something about it. And yet I was engaged throughout, it’s gorgeous to look at, and the final 20 minutes are stunning on every level. One to revisit, for sure.

4 out of 5

Black Narcissus was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Coincidentally, it’s currently available on iPlayer, but only until tomorrow afternoon.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

2019 #30
David Yates | 134 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 12 / PG-13

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

The first Fantastic Beasts movie felt like a standalone adventure, even though it was promoted as a five-movie series from the get-go. Not everyone liked it, but I thought it was an enjoyable adventure that also served to expand the world of the Harry Potter universe — or the Wizarding World, as we’re now to call it. Unfortunately, this first sequel can’t keep that up. Here’s where the five-movie arc really kicks in, and the film suffers for it.

Normally I’d explain the plot round about now, but, frankly, I can’t be bothered. It entirely spins out of what transpired in the first movie; having not seen that since it was in cinemas over two years ago, I frequently struggled to keep up, scrounging around in my memory for the ins and outs of a story I didn’t realise I needed to thoroughly revise. That’s to say nothing of all the other stuff it dregs up from the depths of Harry Potter mythology. As a fan of that series, who’s seen the films multiple times and what have you, I have a fair idea what it’s all about, but even I was frequently left feeling confused. I pity casual viewers.

Further plot details and where to find them

Sometimes movies can gloss over this kind of stuff — the mythology and backstory enriches it, but there’s still an adventure to be going on with — but The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t seem to work that way. The adventure is tied up in the previous film and the overall backstory, and that generates a lot of tedious exposition to explain how things are connected. But that exposition is sometimes rushed over, apparently to allow time for some empty spectacle — there’s still plenty of CGI-fuelled magic action here, it just doesn’t seem to have any weight in the story, or what weight it should have is unclear.

It doesn’t help that the film feels jumpy, like loads of little bits and pieces have been chopped out. I’m not surprised there’s an extended cut, which hopefully will smooth some of that out. It probably stems from the film having so many characters and stories to juggle. The downside of making the previous film feel standalone is that most of its characters need to be reintroduced and reconnected to each other; at the same time, there are new characters and storylines being introduced and set in motion; all while also trying to deliver an action-adventure movie.

Wizard Hitler

There’s stuff to appreciate here nonetheless, including likeable returning characters, some appreciable additions (Jude Law is good as a young Dumbledore), and some impressive effects (the spectacle may be empty, but sometimes it’s still spectacular). Fans of the world J.K. Rowling has created will appreciate getting to see more of it, too — in this case, it’s wizarding Paris, albeit briefly — although there are also some additions to the mythology that are of questionable value. Well, there are three more films yet to come that may reveal that Rowling has somewhere to go with them.

Indeed, I wonder if Crimes of Grindelwald will ultimately play better once it’s placed in context with the following instalments. Or maybe it really is a bit of a mess, with too much going on and not enough time or space to do it, which sometimes makes it hard to understand the significance or value of what we’re watching. I hope that it’s at least put all the pieces in place now, so the next three films can move forward with fewer problems.

3 out of 5

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released in the UK today on DVD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and as an extended cut.

Attack the Block (2011)

2018 #231
Joe Cornish | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

Attack the Block

The directorial debut of comedian Joe Cornish seemed to become an instant cult classic on its release back in 2011 — I distinctly remember US geek websites urging people to see it and even arranging screenings, leaning hard into the kind of word-of-mouth promotion that is often how these small but dedicated fan bases are born. It has the kind of online scores that back up that status: as much as everyone who talks about it seems to love it, it only rates 6.6 on IMDb. I guess you’re either in a cult or you’re not. While I did enjoy it on the whole, I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about.

The film centres on a gang of teenage lads, led by John Boyega in what it turns out was a star-making performance. They roam their inner city London tower block and its surrounding streets, and we first meet them mugging a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker); and, when an alien creature falls from the sky, they savagely beat it to death. Hardly E.T., is it? Of course, murdering the little thing turns out to have been a bad idea, because soon more of the bastards are falling from the sky, and they seem to be particularly targeting our “heroes”.

I’ve bunged heroes in quotation marks there because this gaggle of protagonists are a right bunch of little so-and-sos (to be polite about it). The film sets itself a hurdle by making them so initially unlikeable, and then struggles to overcome it — frankly, I was cheering on the aliens to give the little chavs what for. You could certainly make a movie where the protagonists are unlikeable and the thrill comes from waiting for them to be slaughtered by the ostensible villains (I feel like someone has, probably something incredibly high-profile, but I can’t remember what it is right now), but I don’t think that was Cornish’s aim.

Thugs'r'us

On the brighter side, the boys eventually come across Whittaker’s nurse again, because she lives in the same block as them, and so we have her to root for. Her earlier experience makes her as non-disposed to the gang as I was, and it’s her connecting with them somewhat that comes to rehabilitate them. There’s also Luke Treadaway (that’s the one from Clash of the Titans and A Street Cat Named Bob and Ordeal by Innocence and so on, not to be confused with his brother Harry, who’s appeared in The Lone Ranger and Cockneys vs Zombies and Penny Dreadful and so on; although they’re twins, so, y’know, good luck) as a posh kid trying to score some drugs, and Nick Frost as the dealer he’s trying to get them off, to bring some comic relief. Not that the rest of the film is super serious (it’s about teenage chavs battling ferocious alien bears, c’mon), but their more direct humour is welcome too.

Despite my reservations about the characters, the film is a great calling card for writer-director Joe Cornish. Although tonal similarities between the movies invite comparisons to what Shaun of the Dead did for Edgar Wright (especially as he’s friends with Cornish and an executive producer here), I feel like Wright’s breakout film was even more assured. Instead I think of something like Guy Ritchie and Lock Stock: an imperfect film in itself, but which suggests a lot of potential from the man behind the camera. Quite why it’s taken eight years for Cornish’s second feature to come around is a mystery.

4 out of 5

Attack the Block was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Joe Cornish’s second feature, The Kid Who Would Be King, is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016)

2018 #96
Mandie Fletcher | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

“Most movies are a script in search of some money,” said Jon Plowman, producer of every episode of Ab Fab, “but this was more a case of some money in search of a script. From the minute the word got out that Jennifer was contemplating writing the film of Ab Fab, lots of financiers threw their hats in the ring.” A cruel critic might therefore be tempted to accuse the cast and crew of doing this poorly-received film continuation of the popular TV series “just for the money”, but I think that would be disingenuous — I think there was a real desire to put an appropriate capstone on the beloved sitcom. Whether that merited a 90-minute theatrical release, or would’ve been better served as a 60-minute TV special, is another matter…

Primarily, I think Ab Fab: The Movie is targeted at fans of the series, and isn’t really designed to stand on its own feet as an independent movie. I’ve only seen some of the TV show, and I think that was essential to understanding who all the characters were, how they were connected, and why they behaved in certain ways. Even then, I felt like there was stuff flying over my head because I haven’t seen all of the original episodes and/or because it’s been some years since I did watch any.

So, I’m no expert on Ab Fab, but it’s always been my impression that when it started it was satirising the fashion world of the era (i.e. the ’90s). However, as it’s gone on it seems to have become about itself, as it were — its own characters and in-jokes, rather than any commentary on the wider world. That’s what we get here, therefore: basically, a 25th anniversary special amped up to full-blown movie status. One of the selling points for it as a big-screen variant was that it’s Eddie and Patsy on the French Riviera, continuing the age-old tradition of big-screen outings for British sitcoms being just “send the characters abroad”. Despite that, the first half is still set in London, and it’s pretty funny. When they do finally head overseas, it doesn’t exactly drag, but it seems a bit desperate.

Wheels on fire, off screen

In terms of broader relevance, creator/writer/star Jennifer Saunders has spoken about how the film was supposed to be about ageing; about, apparently, the “reality” of these youth-obsessed characters getting old when they don’t know how to. Well, there’s not much reality in it it, given the typically outlandish situations the already-exaggerated characters find themselves in (for example, the emotional climax comes while Eddie and Patsy are trapped in a tiny van sinking in a swimming pool). That doesn’t mean such OTT antics aren’t amusing, but expecting an examination of the human condition from them is a bit… unlikely.

A more notable feature is the insane number of cameos — “around 60”, according to this list on IMDb. I guess the notoriety of Ab Fab attracts big names… though plenty of them, er, aren’t. Basically, if you’re not a Brit, assume everyone who pops up for only one scene and opens their mouth is some degree of famous here. There are some international (i.e. American) faces too, though, to remind you of the series’ worldwide cult appeal.

Overall, I enjoyed the film, but it definitely leans into being a fan-friendly exercise, which I’m not sure was appropriate for a belated big-screen debut. It’s not an ideal starting point for the uninitiated, then, but it’s not a terrible send-off for existing fans.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is on BBC One tonight at 9pm, and will be available on iPlayer afterwards.