Category Archives: Festivals

GFF13: Diary of a Failed Critic 17/02/13

Bike Polo - exactly as you'd imagine
Bike Polo – exactly as you’d imagine

After a relaxing start to the day spent watching my brother-in-law play Bike Polo (exactly as it sounds, and at the same time unlike any sport I’ve ever seen before), I made my way back into central Glasgow to catch more of this brilliant festival.

After a stop off at the Glasgow Film Theatre press office (and I’ll never tire of being referred to as a “lovely journalist”) to pick up a few more DVD screeners, I made my way to the 6th floor of Glasgow’s Cineworld. Apparently this used to be the tallest cinema in the world. Now, I’ve not got the time or inclination to check such facts, but I couldn’t help being both impressed and utterly underwhelmed by this nugget of information. Glasgow does look rather lovely all lit up at night though.

I was at the cinema to see Stoker. Not just my pick of the day for Failed Critics, but one of my picks of the year for potential greatness. So it was with a heavy heart that I left the cinema to record a review with Steven Neish and Amy Taylor. It turned out I wasn’t alone in my disappointment, and we spent a good part of the recording laying into a film we had all wanted to love.

The podcast will be out next week, and my review will be up tomorrow, but in short the biggest problem with the film was that very little happened, and anything that did happen was both telegraphed and confused. It was a visually striking film, and I was particularly impressed with its use of sound. It’s just that the plot felt like a first draft from an early-nineties erotic thriller, and the actors had very little to do.

Luckily Steven and I then got to wax lyrical over the merits of Cloud Atlas, while Amy described her joy at seeing Sunset Boulevard on the big screen for the first time. I’d just like to thank them both once more for their time and company over this weekend.

After that I retired to the Brewdog Bar, via a fraught bus journey after discovering that Glasgow must have the only mass transportation system in the world that closes at 6pm on a Sunday. Luckily our wonderful sponsors looked after me via the medium of great beer and food, and I was even able to ‘call in’ a report for the Failed Critics Podcast from the bar. The second time that day I’d felt like a proper journalist.

Pick for today: Simon Munnery: Fylm-Makker

Stewart Lee’s favourite comedian is bringing his new show to the Glasgow Film Festival. I’ve no idea what to expect, except that it will be brilliant.

Simon Munnery’s show starts at 9.15pm, at GFT2

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The Failed Critics coverage of Glasgow Film Festival is sponsored by Brewdog Bar Glasgow – providing award-winning beers and brilliant food in one of Glasgow’s friendliest bars.

We would have spent most of the festival there regardless, so we’d really like to thank them for their generous hospitality.

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GFF13: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas Weaving Old GeorgeAfter Ang Lee’s visually striking, if slightly lightweight version of ‘the unfilmable novel’ Life of Pi last year, comes an even more ambitious adaptation in the shape of the Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker’s take on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. A labyrinthine epic spanning six different narratives over a 500-year period, the film has already divided critics and film fans on the other side of the Atlantic following its release last year. The UK finally gets its chance to make up its own mind this week.

Cloud Atlas stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, and Jim Broadbent in various roles across the six storylines. Other actors who appear in at least two (and often more) of the narratives include Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, and an often unrecognisable Hugh Grant. Unfortunately, this will be the first sticking point for members of the audience, as the make-up work to enable these actors to appear as such a diverse range of characters is both incredible, and at times horribly jarring. Seeing Hugh Grant as an angry Korean restaurant manager, for example, is possibly the most disturbing cinematic sequence since, well, most of Antichrist. Looking beyond the make-up, some actors handle the range of performances required with more élan than others, with Hugo Weaving and Jim Broadbent displaying fabulous versatility, while Tom Hanks struggles in a few scenes; particularly as the Irish (possibly?) gangster Dermot Hoggins.

The key for this type of multi-layered film to succeed is that none of the interweaving storylines should bore you, and on the whole this is true of Cloud Atlas. In fact, a number of the strands would make excellent films in their own right. The personal stand-out story for me was the story of Robert Frobisher, a disinherited young libertine (Sturgess) who obtains work as the amanuensis to a world famous composer (Broadbent). Their working arrangement gives Frobisher the time and inspiration to write the Cloud Atlas sextet, a piece of music which echoes throughout the film’s extraordinary score. At times I wanted the film to give this story a little room to breathe and stretch its legs, but as soon as this pre-Second World War environment of duty, honour, and forcibly concealed sexuality got its hooks into you, the film moved onto a different timeline.

There is a huge potential for this to go horribly wrong and it really shouldn’t work, but somehow the Wachowskis and Twyker are performing cinematic alchemy right before our very eyes. On paper, there is so much about this film that shouldn’t work. Tonally, it’s all over the place; one minute you’re watching a farce about pensioners plotting an escape from the nursing home from hell, the next a dystopian science-fiction parable about conformity and rebellion. The editing can be hugely disorientating, sometimes jumping between three or four different narrative strands in a matter of seconds. Everything about this film is exactly what they teach you not to do in film school. And maybe that’s why some people (myself included) will love it.

There are moments I laughed out loud at the sheer lunacy of it all, especially during a frankly bizarre storyline set in the distant future where Tom Hanks and Halle Berry talk in an infuriating patois (“ain’t the tru tru”) and Hugo Weaving turns up an amalgam of Old Gregg and The Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh. I’m still not entirely sure what happened during that period of the film, but it never bored me for a second. And that’s the triumph; in a near three hour running time, with six separate narratives, it never once loses momentum. It is a relentless juggernaut of a film, and afterwards I felt like the victim of an intellectual hit and run.

I still find it hard to recommend though, as I know full well that a great number of people will hate it more than the Wachowski’s Matrix sequels. I just can’t help loving it more than The Matrix.

Cloud Atlas is released nationwide on Friday

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The Failed Critics coverage of Glasgow Film Festival is sponsored by Brewdog Bar Glasgow – providing award-winning beers and brilliant food in one of Glasgow’s friendliest bars.

We would have spent most of the festival there regardless, so we’d really like to thank them for their generous hospitality.

GFF13: Diary of a Failed Critic 16/02/13

jmsAfter what feels forever (or at least as long as a Judd Apatow film), my Glasgow Film Festival experience is well and truly under way. This is by far the biggest, and most prestigious film festival I have attended, let alone covered in any kind of blogging capacity. There is a definite buzz in the air, as the great, good, bad, and unheard converge on this fair city to celebrate film.

And is a fair city, despite what people might have you believe. When I mentioned to friends and colleagues that I was off to Glasgow for a week, I had to immediately add ‘to cover a film festival’ to avoid the kind of looks I usually reserve for fans of The Only Way is Essex. That said, you could hold a film festival on the hard shoulder of the M25 and I would think it was the most magical place on Earth.

Note to self: copyright motorway hard shoulder film festival idea.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting the lovely Steven Neish (@popcornaddict) and Amy Taylor ‏(@TrashTaylor), and had originally planned to record our conversation for the one-off festival podcast I’m producing. Unfortunately I got too caught up in excitable tweet up chat, and before I knew it I had to run off to see my first film. We’ve rescheduled for Sunday, when we’ll all have some films under our belt.

So it was a relaxed start to the festival for me yesterday, with just one film. Michael Winterbottom‘s fourth (if you count The Trip) collaboration with Steve Coogan, and once more they’ve produced a character study of an often-misunderstood, egocentric, and uniquely British celebrity. The Look of Love is a biopic of Soho peep show ‘legend’ and one-time richest man in Britain  Paul Raymond. It details his successful business exploits, but focusses on the many women in his life; particularly on his relationship with his daughter. It’s an enjoyable film and the soundtrack, visual style, and casting of a number of British comic talents make the first half a good-natured romp.

The biggest problem I had with the film was Coogan’s performance, which at times bordered on Alan Partridge going to a fancy dress party as Tony Ferrino. That observation alone feels mean-spirited and snarky though, and can we really blame Coogan for having created such an iconic character that audiences struggle to differentiate between him and his alter-ego?

The real stars of The Look of Love are the female cast, in particular Anna Friel as Raymond’s wife Jean, Tamsin Eggerton as his ‘muse’ for the launch of his first magazine, and Imogen Poots as his daughter Debbie, who spends her life desperate for his validation. Poots is appearing later in the festival in A Late Quartet, and is fast becoming an actress of immense talent.

Today’s pick of the festival is Stoker – The first English-language film from Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) is the art-house equivalent of a new Star Wars film. One of the most unique directors working in film today presents a twisted midnight-black tale about young India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) infatuation with the creepy uncle (Matthew Goode) who comes to stay after the death of her father. Nicole Kidman continues her career renaissance (you can also see her in The Paperboy at Glasgow Film Festival) as India’s fragile mother.

Stoker is showing at Cineworld at 4.30pm today.

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The Failed Critics coverage of Glasgow Film Festival is sponsored by Brewdog Bar Glasgow – providing award-winning beers and brilliant food in one of Glasgow’s friendliest bars.

We would have spent most of the festival there regardless, so we’d really like to thank them for their generous hospitality.

GFF13: Breakfast with Curtis

Breakfast with Curtis tableI have a confession to make. When I read that Breakfast with Curtis was a micro-budget indie film about some quirky characters, and filmed in the writer/director’s house with her friends and neighbours playing the main roles; well, let’s just say I was apprehensive about spending ninety minutes in their company. I’ve turned off too many wilfully quirky films with larger budgets and recognisable actors over the years to have held out much hope of this film being any good.

And sometimes the most wonderful feeling in the world is being proven utterly wrong.

The film opens on the type of incident most children will have experienced, when 9-year-old Curtis (Jonah Parker) is verbally abused and threatened by his neighbour Syd (Theo Green) for throwing stones at his cat. It’s a situation that immediately tapped into one of my childhood fears; that of scary grown-up neighbours who seemed like an entirely different species. Every childhood friend of mine knew a garden where they dare not kick their ball, for fear of incurring the wrathful neighbour. As adults we’re conditioned to fear the wild and uncontrollable youth, but like a spider trapped in a bath, they are probably more afraid of you than you are of them.

Five years later, and with a neighbourly cold war with its roots in ‘the incident’ showing signs of thawing, Syd (the rather bohemian online bookseller who threatened to crush young Curtis’ skull) asks Curtis to help him film some video blogs for his business. Curtis is unsure, but his home-schooling mother persuades him to take on a project that will help build his self-confidence, as well as bridges between the two households.

Our interview with director Laura Colella gives a fascinating insight into how the film came about, and the process used to make it. Syd’s housemates are friends and neighbours in real life, and many of the film’s sweetest and most genuine moments are simply cinematic portrayals of these ‘real lives’. Right down to the video blogs that Curtis shoots and edits to Syd’s great pride and delight, which are genuine videos Jonah filmed with Theo. These connections provide the creative spark for the film, and help it to avoid layering characters with increasingly bizarre affectations and foibles purely to raise a laugh. The inhabitants of Colella’s world remain grounded in reality, and it is a rare film that is happy to simply invite us to share in the lives of some wonderful people.

Breakfast with Curtis will not appeal to everyone, even those without the prejudices that I admit to having about ‘this type of film’. Colella herself admits that “plot-driven and predictable work doesn’t interest me”, and viewers who want ‘something to happen’ may walk away disappointed. However, anyone who wants to see a heart-warming tale of a boy’s first seminal summer, and simply likes to spend time in the company of funny and interesting people, will love it.

Breakfast with Curtis is showing at Glasgow Film Festival on Saturday 16th February at 5.20pm, and Tuesday 19th February at 7pm. Tickets are available here

GFF13: The Final Member

Tom Mitchell, and his plans for Elmo's final resting place
Tom Mitchell, and his plans for Elmo’s final resting place

There are generally two types of theatrical documentary. One involves months, even years, of meticulous research, planning, interviews and fact-checking. The other type often feels like all the film-maker needed to do was turn up, start filming, and let the characters tell the story. The Final Member is firmly in the second camp, but is taken to another level by some beautiful photography, a wonderful soundtrack, and a tension-building finale to rival the best Hollywood thriller.

Siggi Hjartarson runs the world’s first and only Penis Museum, in Iceland. His collection started in the 1970s with a joke gift of a bull’s decapitated member from a friend (odd, but certainly more original than a ‘grow your own girlfriend’ kit and some chocolate boobs). Over the years his collection grew, and he now has thousands of specimens of mammalian penises. Just one thing is missing from his House of Glans though; a Homo sapiens penis.

Believe it or not, two men have chosen to volunteer their phallus to the museum. 93-year-old Pall Arason is Siggi’s preferred candidate; a famous Icelandic adventurer who claims to have slept with 300 women “not counting prostitutes”. Pall’s rival is 60-year-old Tom Mitchell of the USA, a man who introduces himself “I’m Tom Mitchell, and I’m an American”. Pall’s fame in Iceland would make him the ideal candidate, but his advancing years may potentially cause too much shrinkage, and Tom is prepared to go to great lengths, including offering to donate his penis while he is still alive, in an effort to beat off the competition from Pall and ensure his Yankee Doodle Dandy becomes “the most famous penis in the world”.

Siggi’s frustration with Tom’s overzealous communications and ideas for how best to display his penis lead to some of the film’s most wonderful moments. The absurdity of the situation finally dawns on Siggi when he receives word that Tom has commissioned his own display cabinet for Elmo. That’s right, Tom has named his penis Elmo, but don’t worry, it was “long before the Muppet appeared”. Siggi is furious at the eroding of his authority, and issues Tom with a ‘take it or leave it’ offer and heads off to translate a book by a Spanish monk into Icelandic.
Honestly.

The real star of the show is Pall Arason though. His brief appearances in the film are a wonderful portrayal of the type of eccentric character you fear the 21st century will no longer produce. In the absence of a documentary of Pall’s life, we’ll have to make do with archive footage of his appearance on a UK television show (unnamed, but it surely must either be The Word or Eurotrash), where a poor researcher is charged with making a plaster cast of Pall’s penis. The ensuing cock-up is comedy gold that left me laughing out loud in spite of myself. Sometimes the simplest things please the simplest minds.

In spite of my remarks in the opening paragraph, I know how much hard work went into making this documentary. To use a football analogy, the best kind of referee is one that you don’t notice during the match. In film terms, the greatest success of The Final Member is that you don’t notice the artifice of the film-maker encroaching into a compelling story.
The Final Member is destined to become a festival hit, and you can be one of the first to see it at the Glasgow Film Festival on Friday 15th and Saturday 16th February. 

Tickets are available here.

GFF13: Interview with Laura Colella (Breakfast with Curtis)

Saturday sees the UK Première of Breakfast with Curtis, the latest film from writer/director Laura Colella. It’s a wonderful micro-budget film made in Laura’s house, and starring her friends and neighbours.

Breakfast with Curtis tableFive years after an incident that caused a seemingly irreparable rift with his neighbours, online bookseller and care-free bohemian Syd asks their 14-year-old son Curtis for help recording a video blog. What follows is a beautiful coming-of age film about one of those seminal summers where rifts are healed, old secrets emerge, and boys finally become men.

We spoke to Laura ahead of the festival.

Firstly, how did the idea for making Breakfast with Curtis come about?

Before making BREAKFAST WITH CURTIS, I had been struggling to get a larger-budgeted project off the ground. It was to be my third feature, and I thought it was normal to expect my films to keep growing in terms of the size of production. The trend in the industry was of course going in the opposite direction. After a few years, I was dying to just make a movie, and returned to my roots as a hands-on filmmaker who likes to write, direct, shoot, edit, etc. I looked around at the crazy characters and great locations in my immediate environment and decided to formulate a story based on them.

There are some very strong acting performances in this film, and I think viewers will be surprised to find that you cast your non-actor neighbours in leading roles. Did it work so well because the actors are playing versions of themselves or because of the writing/filming process you used? Or were you just very lucky to be living among some great undiscovered thespians?

I think all of those answers are true. I wrote for my actors, and we had shoots with tiny crews and minimal production that were relatively low-stress and comfortable for them. I did a lot of takes, and listened and worked for the performances that I knew were right and workable. A lot of the performances came together in the editing room, which I think is usually true with experienced actors as well. The reality is that many professional movie actors, at least in the United States, are not necessarily highly trained, so I don’t see a big division between actors and non-actors. Casting to type and innate qualities often brings invaluable richness if that person can be directed well.

One thing that struck me as I watched this film is that there isn’t a traditional antagonist, or even much conflict beyond the initial incident that leads to the rift between the neighbours. In fact, it’s one of the few films I’ve seen where I’d like to grab a drink with all of the characters. Is this something you consciously aimed for when writing the script?

Many people who’ve seen the film have said they’d like to come live with us or have a drink with us, and that feels great, because I was really trying to capture the spirit of fun around here. I do try to avoid formulaic conflict in my writing. Although we’re trained to expect it, I think more interesting and complex things happen when that expectation is not met. Purely plot-driven and predictable work doesn’t interest me. I think my stories are more theme-driven, and I like to incorporate humor and detail as much as possible.

There are a number of obvious restrictions with low-budget film-making. How do you turn those restrictions in opportunities? Is it simply a matter of taking advantage of serendipity? (such as being able to use Jonah’s real-life videos of Theo, or the wonderful blanket of snow that allows for some beautiful shots in the film)

Turning restrictions into opportunities is a great way to make micro-budget movies. We used a relatively inexpensive camera (a Canon 5D Mark II) that had certain limitations, for example, but you can make amazing images with it that look gorgeous even projected on a giant screen. Jonah and Theo’s videos were one of the initial inspirations for the project. There were so many examples of serendipitous good fortune throughout the making of it, ranging from the weather and the way things grew in the garden that year, to the generous participation of people who came on board to help us through post, such as my fantastic executive producer and post guru Mike Jackman.

What do you have planned for your next project? Would you like to work with your neighbours again at some point in the future?

I’d love to work with them again, and there have been a lot of jokes about sequels. I’m still hoping to get the larger-budgeted project I mentioned off the ground, and have another script I’m currently working on.

Finally, we’ll be recording a special edition of our podcast from the festival and celebrating Scottish films and film-making. We’re asking everyone we speak to for their three favourite films set in Scotland.

Wow, here’s the thing: I don’t watch a ton of movies, because I’m so busy with work, and mostly read when I have leisure time. But I’ll say TRAINSPOTTING, LOCAL HERO and GREGORY’S GIRL. I need to see more – please send recommendations!

Breakfast with Curtis is showing at Glasgow Film Festival on Saturday 16th February at 5.20pm, and Tuesday 19th February at 7pm. Tickets are available HERE, and our review is now online

Glasgow Film Festival preview

stoker

This Thursday (14th February) sees the start of the ninth annual Glasgow Film Festival. Growing in size and stature every year, the 2013 festival is the biggest yet, with over 360 events, 57 UK premieres, and 6 world premieres.

The great thing about the GFF is that, as well as being able to watch highly anticipated films from the likes of Joss Whedon (with his lo-fi take on Shakespeare’s anti-rom-com Much Ado About Nothing), Michael Winterbottom (The Look of Love, starring Steve Coogan as porn baron Paul Raymond), and Chan-wook Park (with his first English-language film, Stoker), film fans can also watch cinematic classics in entirely different surroundings (including Jaws on a boat, and The Passion of Joan of Arc in Glasgow Cathedral with live accompaniment).

As well as film, the festival features live musical performances, Q&As with the stars and creators of TV shows like A Game of Thrones and Fresh Meat, and even a live review of the new Aliens: Colonial Marines video-game (followed by a 70mm screening of Aliens on the big screen.

While most films and events are priced at a very reasonable £8.50, there are also a number of free events including the opening of the latest BFI Mediatheque on Friday 22nd February at Bridgeton Library.

Failed Critics will be in Glasgow during the festival to report back on the films not to miss, as well as exploring the cinematic history of this wonderful city. We’ll also be recording a special edition of the Failed Critics Podcast, and maybe even getting a special guest or two on to talk to us*.

*By special, we mean Dave MacFarlane from Bornoffside.net and Paul Fisher from TheWriteClub.co.uk. They’re special, in a way.

For those of you lucky enough to be in Glasgow next week, here are our picks of the festival:

The Final Member
Destined to become one of the surprise hits of this, and many other film festivals; The Final Member is one of those documentaries where it seems all the film-makers need do is show up and point their camera at the subject. Siggy Hjartarson is the curator of the world’s only Penis Museum, in Iceland, and although he has thousands of mammalian specimens he is missing one vital object. A human penis. Believe it or not, the race is on between a 95-year-old Icelandic explorer/womaniser and an younger American who is prepared to go to great lengths (if you think that pun is bad, wait until our full review) to make his penis famous.

The Final Member is showing on Friday 15th February at 3pm, and on Saturday 16th February at 7pm.

Breakfast with Curtis
If you fancy watching a film made by a unique writing/directing talent, filmed in the director’s house over a few weeks and starring their friends, well, you could try and blag a ticket to one of the sold-out screenings of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, or you could watch Laura Colella’s heart-warming Breakfast with Curtis.

Five years after an incident that caused a seemingly irreparable rift with his neighbours, online bookseller and care-free bohemian Syd asks their 14-year-old son Curtis for help recording a video blog. What follows is a beautiful coming-of age film about one of those seminal summers where rifts are healed, old secrets emerge, and boys finally become men.

Breakfast with Curtis is showing on Saturday 16th February at 5.20pm, and Tuesday 19th February at 7pm.

Stoker
The first English-language film from Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) is the art-house equivalent of a new Star Wars film. One of the most unique directors working in film today presents a twisted midnight-black tale about young India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) infatuation with the creepy uncle (Matthew Goode) who comes to stay after the death of her father. Nicole Kidman continues her career renaissance (you can also see her in The Paperboy at Glasgow Film Festival) as India’s fragile mother.

This is one film where we have no idea what to expect, but except to be entertained.

Stoker is showing on Saturday 16th February at 8.30pm, and Sunday 17th February at 4.30pm.

GFF13 Surprise Film
The surprise film has become a staple of the festival circuit in recent years, and Glasgow Film Festival usually delivers in spades. Recent choices for this slot have included David Lynch’s Inland Empire, and last-year’s mumblecore delight Jeff, Who Lives At Home. We’ll be recording our GFF Podcast Special directly after this screening with our instant reactions.

The only disappointment will be from those who miss out on a ticket for a screening that will almost certainly sell out.

The GFF 13 Surprise Film is showing on Wednesday 20th February at 8.30pm.

A Hijacking
Scandinavian drama has never been held in higher esteem than it is right now, and The Hijacking is another example of the excellent film-making coming out of Denmark. This is a taut and ultra-realistic film about the hijacking of the Danish cargo ship by Somali pirates, and the ensuing stand-off and negotiations.

A Hijacking is showing on Wednesday 20th February at 8.45pm, and Thursday 21st February at 4pm.

A full list of films, including online booking facilities, is available on the Glasgow Film Festival website

Failed Critics Review: Zombie Special!

Zombies in Shaun of the DeadThe Failed Critics Review is packed full of moaning, shuffling, bad-smelling, and barely sentient beings this week…and we also talk about zombies!

James reports back on the 6th annual UK Festival of Zombie Culture, including the world première of the HD restoration of Zombie Flesh Eaters.

There’s a heated discussion on what constitutes a zombie movie, and whether the zombies that run are proper zombies. And don’t even get James started on Danny Boyle’s view that 28 Days Later isn’t a zombie film.

Then in Triple Bill the critics choose their favourite zombie films of all time.

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UK Festival of Zombie Culture – Report

The 6th annual UK Festival of Zombie Culture (and in true zombie film tradition it has another title it goes by – The Day of the Undead) took place, as it always has, at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester. More than ever before, this year’s programme had a distinctly British feel to it, with four of the features (and many of the shorts on show) being home-grown affairs.

Scattered around the venue were numerous opportunities to meet the authors of zombie novels, buy various zombie games and DVDs, and even get yourself made-up to look like one of the undead horde. The real draw was the programme of zombie films on display in the state-of-the-art cinema.

First up was the world première of the HD restoration of Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, known in the UK as ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’. This unofficial sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead has been restored for a Blu-ray release (to be released next month), and it certainly looks fantastic. The images are clear, without ever looking too clean.

As a big fan of Dawn of the Dead, I went into this expecting a lesser film – and was actually very pleasantly surprised. Having seen some Italian giallo films recently I have started to get used to seeing dubbing in films, and if I’m honest – I wasn’t here to see realism. There’s plenty of melodramatic acting, and the musical cues almost parody themselves – but the real meat (if you’ll excuse the pun) is in the zombie effects, and the set-pieces.

Not only do the zombies look genuinely like decomposing corpses (sadly, many modern zombie films seem to think a bit of white make-up and a bloody chin will do) – but there are some genuinely horrific scenes of violence here, including the worst scene featuring an eyeball since Un Chien Andalou.

If you are a fan of Romero’s films this is a must for your collection. Actually, this is a must-own for anyone who likes the idea of a zombie fighting a shark.

Next up were a number of short-films, or varying quality. Ross Shepherd’s Victorian Undead certainly looked good, and would make a nice scene in a longer feature. However, as a short film it failed to convey much of a story or any characterisation. A local film made in Loughborough called The End also showed some promise, but the lack of a budget showed when the zombies finally appeared on-screen.

Velvet Road was my pick of the shorts, both stylistically and thematically head and shoulders above the rest of the unofficial competition. Set in the racially-charged US-south in the 1960s it certainly owned a visual debt to The Walking Dead.

The comedy side of the zombie genre was also well-represented. Smush, a short from the team that made last year’s Deadheads, was a rather sweet story of a young girl befriending a hungry zombie. We were also treated to a couple of episodes of  Bumbloods – a four-part web-series about a couple of room-mates trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. What it lacks in budget and story-telling, it makes up with in some great jokes and a home-made charm.

The headline film of the shorts section was Muralim (Poisoned), the first ever state-funded genre film from Israel. A ‘zomedy’ in the style of Shaun of the Dead, it tells the story of army base gardener (and son of a war hero) Danny who has to face down a horde of zombie soldiers on during Passover, while trying to win the heart of his high-school sweetheart. As well as being very funny, it is also an interesting exploration on the way the military can ‘poison’ the minds of soldiers into becoming a homogeneous group of mindless beings who follow orders without question. Deep.

Next up was new British zombie film Before Dawn directed by, and starring Paddy from the UK soap opera Emmerdale (Dominic Brunt, who introduced the screening), and his real-life wife Joanne Marshall.

It tells the story of an estranged couple getting away for a weekend in the country to make one last go of their marriage. Then, obviously, some zombies turn up.

The kitchen-sink set-up of the film actually works really well (as you’d expect from a soap opera veteran), and Brunt and Marshall are believable and sympathetic.

The fact that Brunt has gone for running zombies was always going to upset a traditionalist like me. It’s not that I don’t see them as ‘proper’ zombies, it’s just that I don’t find these modern zombies to be as scary as the shuffling hordes we know as ‘Romero Zombies’. I like the changing power dynamic you get in a film featuring the shuffling zombies. The fact that one or two of them would be reasonably easy to repel, and it’s only when you start getting overwhelmed that you realise the true horror of the monster.

Like most zombie films that don’t aim for all-out comedy, this is a pretty relentlessly depressing film. It’s a good-looking and well-performed piece though, although Brunt’s inexperience shows in the action/fight scenes which are more confusing in the shooting/editing than terrifying.

Before the next screening we were treated to a conversation with Charlie Higson, talking about his ‘The Enemy’ series of books for young adults. He admitted that he felt a fraud as the monsters in his books weren’t strictly zombies in the ‘risen from the dead’ mould, but rather an infected populace as in 28 Days Later. Of course, as he pointed out, I think we have come to accept that the definition of zombie in popular culture has changed to encompass a range of ‘changed humans’ in an end-of-the-world scenario. Higson is a friendly and engaging fellow, with a good-line in stories of scaring his own children.

Up next was The Eschatrilogy, an anthology of stories with a linking narrative arc set within the zombie genre. I was really looking forward to this, and I was sadly very disappointed. The opening 10 minutes of the film looks glorious, and the concept of a ‘watcher’ collecting stories from the zombie apocalypse intrigued me. The problem is that the film’s £15,000 budget is massively outstripped by the film-makers ambitions. Normally I would be able to overlook this, and even applaud it – but when one of the short-cuts they have chosen to make is in the acting department I just can’t get on-board. Nothing is likely to put me off of a film faster than amateur acting. The type of acting you see in the adverts that candidates in The Apprentice make. It didn’t help that the end of the film was cut short by technical problems with the Blu-ray. Unfortunately I don’t think I missed much.

Gangsters, Guns, and ZombiesFinally (for me anyway) was Gangsters, Guns, and Zombies. This low-budget film is basically ‘Lock Stock’ meets ’28 Days Later’. It’s derivative and unoriginal, but it does its best to win the audience over with some genuinely funny lines and some entertaining and sympathetic characters. One I think I might be tempted to watch again.

At this point I was zombied-out. I had to forgo Cockney’s Versus Zombies after 12 straight hours watching the undead, and I applaud anyone who made it to the very end. I really enjoyed my first UK Festival of Zombie Culture though, and I am sure I’ll be back next year.

Failed Critics Review: Bowiefest and Total Recall

The return of the Fat White Duke – yep, James is back from London and is here to tell us about Bowiefest, the first film festival devoted to the cinematic work of David Bowie.

Also this week, the Failed Critics review Total Recall, a film that is definitely a remake of the 1990 Arnie classic, regardless of what the studio tells us.

We also discuss what we’ve been watching this week including The Hunger Games, Labyrinth, Very Bad Things, and Jean Claude van Damme’s classic Time Cop.

Join us on Friday for Triple Bill, where we choose our favourite true-life stories that we would love to see made into films.

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Bowiefest Day Three – Review

After the intensity of Bowiefest Day Two (four films, three over two hours long and all of them pretty bleak – with only a 15-minute break between each screening), the final day of Bowiefest looked like being a walk in the park. A couple of musicals and a 50-minute TV documentary featuring lashings of Bowie performing live. I even managed to pop out for some food at one point!

Labyrinth

First up was Labyrinth – the film that co-curator Oli Harbottle told us before the showing was his first foray to the cinema, and that Bowie’s codpiece “had stayed with him ever since”. For many this is David Bowie, with the film being an influence on a great number of people of a certain age – in some cases more than his music. It was certainly my introduction to David Bowie (both the man and his music). It’s the Top of the Pops ‘Starman’ moment for a great many thirty-somethings.

It’s a sign of how deep down the rabbit-hole that Day Two had taken me that this review was very nearly as dark as anything I had seen the day before. My notepad is full of scribblings like this:

Dreams within dreams

Sarah’s room = the Usual Suspects notice board

Fantasy driven by sexual awakening. Puberty

“Your mother is a fucking aardvark” (I’m sure I heard this in the background of a scene)

The 99%. “It’s not fair” “You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is”

50 Shades!!! (nope, me neither).

I may need some counselling after this weekend.

Luckily my childhood-self pulled my through and I was able to enjoy Labyrinth for exactly what it is – a wonderful fairy-tale featuring some of Jim Henson’s best work, a charming script from a Python (Terry Jones), and David Bowie at his theatrical best.

What is great about Bowie’s performance here is that he’s just enjoying himself. There’s no sense that all of this is somehow beneath him. He embraces the chance to entertain an entirely new audience that brings with it different challenges and rewards (rather like Rik Mayall’s utterly captivating rendition of George’s Marvellous Medicine for BBC’s Jackanory).

Absolute Beginners

I was a little worried about this screening. Julien Temple’s film was a massive commercial flop on release, and hasn’t even gone on to be a cult late-night television or DVD hit in the intervening years.

Based on the 1959 novel by Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners is a theatrical, stagey musical detailing the rise of the teenage in London in 1958. The opening half of the film is a very jaunty story about a young couple in love who lose each other to a modicum of fame and fortune – each selling out their integrity in different ways. The second half is a far darker exploration of the Notting Hill race riots (although there’s still plenty of West Side Story-esque dance-fight scenes).

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s actually a lot better than I remember, and dare I say – even underrated? Colin (Eddie O’Connell) and Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit) have to deliver a few duff lines and bits of cod-psychology, but we believe them and ultimately want them to be together. David Bowie plays evil advertising executive Vendice Partners, a cross between Don Draper and Mephistopheles who corrupts Colin by singing ‘That’s Motivation’ on a giant keyboard. Even Lionel Blair is half-decent! Simply put, if that doesn’t sound like your idea of fun then you may want to avoid Absolute Beginners.

Alan Yentob in conversation with Jeremy Deller about CRACKED ACTOR

Bowiefest closed with the most-anticipated event of the weekend – a very rare screening of the 1974 BBC documentary Cracked Actor (followed by the director Alan Yentob in conversation with Bowie fan and Turner-winning artist/film-maker Jeremy Deller).

For those of us who have had to make do with excerpts of the documentary on YouTube for the last few years this was a real treat. Not only was the picture in great condition, but hearing the sound of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour through the excellent ICA sound system was fantastic.

Afterwards Jeremy Deller described this as “Bowie’s best onscreen performance”, and after seeing so many of them this weekend I could not argue with that. Bowie’s paranoia and the effects of the cocaine he was using at the time are punctuated by moments of brutally honest truths. The mask never slips though, and Bowie is in complete command of himself, and this film.

The influence of Cracked Actor can be felt in a number of surprising places. Obviously the live music elements of the Diamond Dogs tour have gone on to influence pretty much every stadium tour that followed, but it’s influence can also been keenly felt in the world of comedy. Yentob revealed that Carl Reiner used one of the cameramen from Cracked Actor for This Is Spinal Tap, and there’s a moment where Bowie is reading out the label of one of his Japanese costumes and translates for us as “dry-cleaning only” in such a way that Ricky Gervais MUST has based elements of The Office on this documentary.

And that is that. Bowiefest has been a huge success with multiple sell-outs of events, and plans to take it on the road in early-2013. More than that though, it has been a timely reminder of the incredible talent of David Bowie. Although he has earned his retirement many times over, the world is a slightly less wonderful place without him working.

I would like to thank Oli and Natasha, and the excellent and friendly staff at the ICA London for delivering such a wonderfully run event.

If you want to hear more about Bowiefest, this weeks Failed Critics Review will feature an extended report.

Bowiefest Day Two – Review

Although opening night was a fantastic experience, today was the day that Bowiefest really got going. Four films back-to-back that feature David Bowie throughout – three of them in leading acting roles. What I wasn’t prepared for was how exhausting the day would be. Physically (9 hours in a cinema seat with only a 10 minute gap between films), but also mentally – the first three films were all over 2 hours long and had themes ranging from the treatment of POWs in Japan during WWII to the child sex-trade. Thank God I’ve got Labyrinth to look forward to tomorrow.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

Nagisa Oshima’s first film for a western audience features Bowie as Jack Celliers; a rebellious Major in the British Army who surrenders himself to save a village and forms a complex relationship with his POW Camp Commander (also played by a ‘rock star’ – Ryuichi Sakamoto).

This is a fascinating clash of cultures on a number of levels, and the eponymous Mr Lawrence (played beautifully by Tom Conte) sums up the heart of the film towards the end saying “we’re all wrong”.

Bowie has said that this is his most credible performance, and it’s easy to see why. He’s not playing a version of himself here, rather he plays Celliers like a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia. This film is the perfect riposte to any lingering doubts about his acting ability.

The most interesting dynamic in the film though is Conte’s Colonel Lawrence (a British officer who speaks Japanese and tries to understand his Japanese captors) and Sgt. Hara, the Japanese second-in-command played by Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano in his first English-language film. The mutual respect is always on a knife-edge between these two soldiers, with Hara telling Lawrence during a particularly heartfelt scene that he would admire Lawrence “more if you killed yourself”.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is a complex and layered study of duty, shame, and the unlikely relationships that develop during times of war.

The Man Who Fell To Earth

This film was Bowie’s first major acting role, and features him playing an alien who has come to Earth with the best intentions of saving his home planet, but who becomes seduced by the temptations of the human race. Sound familiar?

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a massively ambitious film from Nic Roeg, and it quite literally reaches for the stars. The story is a bit of a mess at times however, and its 139 minute run time is a sign that a stricter editor may have been able to pull together a tighter film.

Its saving grace is in the universally excellent performances. Bowie was cast by Roeg after seeing the Cracked Actor documentary, which featured the singer showing the signs of being a paranoid outsider that simply are Thomas Jerome Newton. Rip Torn is also captivating as the scientist who gives up his easy life of teaching and sleeping with students at a university to become Newton’s closest advisor.

There are a great number of brilliant ideas going on here, but the overall picture is arguably a little less than the sum of its parts.

Christiane F

Christiane F has been the real surprise of the festival for me. Directed by Uli Edel in 1981, this West German film follows the story of the title character as she goes from 13 year-old girl sneaking into a club called Sound to 14 year-old drug addict and, eventually, victim of the sex industry.

Shot on largely on handheld cameras, it’s a cinema verite look at a shocking underbelly in a modern (at the time) western city. The actors were almost all non-professional, and it’s incredible to think that Natja Brunckhorst (playing Christiane) was only 14 at the time of filming. I have not been punched in the stomach like this by a performance for a very long time.

Halfway through the film, the potential significance of the title is revealed, and the viewer spends the last half of the film feeling physically sick (on a number of occasions this is due to the shockingly realistic portrayal of drug addiction on screen), and by the end of the film I had to get out of the cinema just to catch my breath.

To compound my feelings, it was only after the screening I realised the film is based on the true-life memoirs of Christiane. This explains my feeling that at times this played out like an extreme public information video about the dangers of drugs. Christiane’s descent was predictable, with each step telegraphed at times – but it’s this predictability and inevitability which is at the heart of the films power.

An incredible experience.

The Hunger

Tony Scott’s debut film about ‘vampires’ is very eighties, schlocky, and quite a bit of fun. Catherine Deneuve plays Miriam, an Egyptian immortal who drinks the blood of her victims – but without fangs, or an aversion to sunlight. Part of this films problem is it doesn’t know if it’s a vampire piece or not.

Bowie plays her current lover, a 300 year-old cellist who starts to age rapidly (with some fantastic make-up for the time – certainly better than the recent attempt on J. Edgar). He seeks out the help of aging-specialist Dr Sarah Roberts (a very young Susan Sarandon). However, when Bowie ‘dies’, Miriam decides to seduce Roberts and make her the new companion.

I’ll be honest, it was late, and I was tired, but this was a pretty ridiculous film. The very graphic sex-scene between Deneuve and Sarandon seemed to produce more laughs than anything else in the audience, and the last half-hour was even more ludicrous.

However, there was still a lot of fun to be had and as an insight into the work of the recently deceased Tony Scott it was most interesting.

A tiring day, but a very enjoyable one. It was great to see some films I’d not seen in years on the big screen – and in a couple of cases the scratchy film added to the experience. Christiane F in particular will stay with me for a very long time.

One day to go…

Bowiefest Day One – Review

Today sees the start of a film festival that I had never dared dream happen. A festival celebrating the cinematic work of David Bowie. Despite thinking that this appealed to me, and me alone, tickets have been selling so fast the ICA have had to schedule further screenings of Labyrinth and The Hunger to satisfy demand.

For the next three days I will be watching ALL THE BOWIE (which I believe is the internet-approved vernacular) and reporting and reviewing everything for you lucky, lucky Failed Critics readers. There may even be something special for our podcast listeners…

Culture Now: Woody Woodmansey in conversation with Tom Wilcox

This is a film site, so I can won’t say too much about this wonderful event as it was purely focused on the music of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

What I will say is that Woody Woodmansey is a very warm and compelling individual, who shone a light on some dark corners of the era in question.

One of the most interesting things I learned this afternoon was that before recording Hunky Dory, Mick Ronson returned to his childhood piano teacher in Hull to ‘finish his studies’ and learn arrangement. His first arrangement after that? Life on Mars.

It was also interesting to hear the Bowie/Spiders creative process at the time. Ziggy Stardust was recorded in just a week, due to the fact the band never did more than 3 takes of a song. Woodmansey explains “When you do it a third time you’re repeating. Not creating.” In fact while recording the first take of Jean Genie, Trevor Bolding hit a wrong bass note. Although the band got ready to go again, Bowie said “that’s the take”. Bolding tried to explain that he’d made a mistake, but Bowie said he actually liked it. Fascinating insight.

We were also treated to an exclusive announcement while Woodmansey was discussing the influence Ziggy had on many contemporary artists. He and Bolder will be playing Ziggy in full at Hammersmith Apollo in April with guest musicians. I personally cannot wait.

Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture

If I had a time machine the first thing I would do wouldn’t be to go back and kill Hitler, or look at dinosaurs. No, I’d travel back to Hammersmith Odeon on 3rd July to see the last ever gig by Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

This was the infamous gig where Bowie “had to break up the band”, which was news to drummer Woody Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder.

Tonight’s screening is preceeded by a few words from Mick Ronson’s sister Maggie. She shared with us her memories from the tour, and I’ll happily admit I nearly shed a tear in the cinema once more.

Once the film started I felt closer to the events than ever before. Not just because of the excellent screening facilities at the ICA, but because I’m watching it with a large group of people all here for the same purpose. We tap our feet in unison. We laugh at the same places during the intimate, almost cute, backstage footage, and we cheer and applaud like crazy at the end of every song.

What really comes across in this film is how much of a band the Spiders from Mars where, and how they were vital for Bowie’s sound at the time. He may have dispensed with their service services by the time Diamond Dogs was recorded, but you could argue he tried, and failed, to recreate that vibe for the rest of his career. Ronson especially takes centre stage on a number of occasions to showcase his incredible talent.

Finally, it was great to see a number of kids in the audience. You are never too young to watch this film. And you can never watch it too many times.

And that’s that for Day One. A nice easy start to the festival that highlighted what I already knew about David Bowie – that he’s a musical genius and the run of Hunky Dory/Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane is up there with any artists’ most creative period in human history.

Tomorrow we get our teeth into more complex and controversial arguments about Bowie’s worth as an actor.

Things I’ve learned today: The Ronson family still drink ‘Ziggy Specials’ – advocat, brandy, and lemonade. Ouch!

Quote of the day: “We liked Velvet Underground, but I didn’t think they played well. I didn’t think Lou sang well. Sorry Lou”. Woody Woodmansey on a major influence on the sound of Ziggy Stardust.

Watch That Man! – Bowiefest Preview

Tomorrow sees the opening of Bowiefest – the first film festival devoted o the cinematic output of legendary musician David Bowie. Taking place at the ICA in London, the festival is a mixture of film screenings (including Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) and discussions with people who worked with Bowie over a film career that spans the length of his entire creative career.

I will be covering the festival for Failed Critics (as a huge Bowie fan I can barely contain my excitement), and I caught up with co-curators Oli Harbottle and Natasha Dack to discuss the festival.

How are preparations going?

Oli: We’re scarily close. We’ve had a run of sell-outs and tickets for the remaining events are going. It’s going to be a great weekend. Very excited.

You’ve pulled together an extensive and varied programme of films for the festival – which one are you most looking forward to seeing on the big screen?

Natasha: I’m Looking forward to taking my 8 year-old son to see Labyrinth, and also to seeing Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, a film about which Bowie said he was most pleased with his performance.  Also looking forward to seeing Bowie dancing on the giant typewriter in Absolute Beginners and playing a 300 year old vampire in The Hunger. All of them in fact.

O: When Natasha and I were putting together the programme we obviously couldn’t include every Bowie film, so the ones we did choose are there for a particular reason. Personally, I think it’s really wonderful to have the two documentaries that are opening and closing the festival. Cracked Actor is a rare gem and I don’t think it’s ever had a cinematic screening, and having Alan Yentob along is just great. And the opening film [Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture] is just a great way to open the festival.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about how Alan Yentob and Jeremy Deller in conversation about Cracked Actor came about?

N: A film maker called Nicholas Abrahams alerted me to the fact that Jeremy Deller was a fan of the documentary, so I asked Jeremy if he would be interested in talking about the film, then I asked Alan Yentob. It sounds simple but it actually involved lots of stalking.

 

The film work of David Bowie is, at best underrated (and sometimes derided), so where did the idea to hold a festival celebrating his contribution to cinema come from?

N: Llike many good ideas it came from a slightly drunk conversation late at night.   Oli and myself were discussing ideas for a niche film festival while attending a documentary film festival in Toronto. I had watched DB’s Glass Spider tour film on the plane on the way over to Toronto and somehow David Bowie was stuck in my head. We realised that Bowie had a loyal and large fan base and also had a varied back catalogue of film appearances – which combined to form the basis of BowieFest.

O: The Bowie idea just hit us, and it seemed like such an obvious idea in a lot of ways. Subsequently I’ve been thinking of other musical artists who have acted in films, but I don’t think there is anyone else for whom you could curate such a strong selection of films. We came back to London and had a follow-up meeting, but it was still very much an idea. Then we pitched it to the ICA at the end of last year, and the ICA seemed like such a good venue for the festival to take place. Bowie is from London, and I believe he used to be a patron at the ICA. The venue encapsulates everything Bowie encapsulates. Then it’s all happened so quickly in the last few months. We only announced the festival in July and the response has been incredible. We’re getting emails, and social media plugs from all across the world.

 

What is your earliest memory of seeing David Bowie onscreen?

O: Well, my first trip to the cinema was to see Labyrinth. As a first foray to the cinema that’s quite an unforgettable experience. I think Bowie has been imprinted in my mind since then. I’ve seen The Man Who Feel to Earth on the big screen, but I haven’t seen any of the others on the big screen, so it’s a bit of a self-indulgent festival as well.

N: David Bowie singing Heroes on the Marc Bolan show which I watched at my Nan’s house in 1977.

 

Is there another film that you wish you could be showing (but can’t for any reason)?

N: I would have loved to have shown Baal [Bertold Brecht play that Bowie was in, produced for BBC TV in the early 80s] but it’s a bit obscure. I would also love to have shown some of the early short films and mime pieces he appeared in in the late 60s/early 70s. And finally David Bowie as Elephant Man in the Broadway show – which sadly wasn’t filmed.

 

Tickets sales are going fantastically well, and is there anything else in particular that you would like to encourage people to come and see over the weekend?

O: I think Christiane F and The Hunger, which are playing back-to-back on Saturday night, are two extraordinary films. Christiane F is a cult-classic featuring Bowie in his Berlin days and is very rarely screened. Then The Hunger –  it’s amazing that I picked up Time Out yesterday and it’s the number one critics’ choice for films to see this week. I think The Hunger, with the sad news recently of the death of Tony Scott, is a unique occasion to watch this film. The audience for both of these films, I think there will be a very real sense of people being there for the same reason, and when you go to the cinema I don’t think that’s always the case.

Huge thanks to Oli and Natasha for spending some of their increasingly precious time talking to me. BowieFest starts tomorrow (Friday 21st August) at the ICA and further details are available at http://bowiefest.net/, and you can follow the festival on twitter at @bowiefest.

I will be blogging/tweeting/shouting at strangers in the ICA bar during the festival, so check back on failedcritics.com, and follow me on @thefailedcritic.

Oli also said the word ‘Bowie-oke’ during the interview – so you may also find me fighting people off with only a microphone to defend myself.