The Watchers

The Watchers

Monday, 31 August 2015

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015 - Part Three

13 Minutes (Germany/German dialogue with English subtitles/110 min)

Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made his name with one of this century’s best World War II dramas, Downfall, returns to his first language (having directed the critically bludgeoned The Invasion, with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, and Diana, starring Naomi Watts) and Nazi Germany with 13 Minutes, which tells the true story of Georg Elser, who planted a bomb directly behind Hitler during a speech he gave in Munich. Hitler left thirteen minutes before the explosion, Elser being caught and interrogated by the Gestapo, before spending his last days in a concentration camp.

Few directors come up with a masterpiece; fewer manage it twice. With Hirschbiegel, he’s done just that, 13 Minutes easily as engrossing and harrowing as Downfall. This is largely thanks to Christian Friedel in the lead. Screenwriters Léonie-Claire and Fred Breinersdorfer flesh-out Elser, making him this complex, sometimes contradictory man, and Friedel more than does the job of portraying this in front of the camera. When we first meet Elser he is this arrogant, almost Bohemian man, with no interest in politics, only women. Witnessing the rise of the Nazis and the repercussions this has on his friends, family, as well as his birthplace, Baden-Wurtemburg, Elser realises he has to do something.

We all know Elser failed; 13 Minutes is never about that. Hirschbiegel cuts back-and-forth between Elser’s brutal interrogation and what lead him to take a stand against Hitler. It’s heart-breaking, devastating to watch as Elsner’s wife turns her back on him, the Nazis publically disgrace him, and the front pages call him an enemy of Germany. Tragically, it wasn’t until years after his death that Elsner was pardoned and recognised as a freedom fighter.

Just as in Downfall, Hirschbiegel manages to make the Nazis human, not the two-dimensional villains from the Indiana Jones films. There’s a rationale behind what the Nazis did, why they treat Elsner so barbarically. The Gestapo’s commanding officer cannot understand why anyone would want to take the Führer’s life, or why they would refuse to cooperate during questioning. During one scene, enraged, the officer asks Elsner, “Don’t you want to see this country great again?”

Moving as well as subtle, 13 Minutes is one of the very best of this year’s EIFF. It won’t be for everyone – this is far from a lightweight, feel-good film – but it is riveting from start-to-finish, Hirschbiegel somehow managing to make it all look easy. This has to go into the top ten films of 2015.

5 out of 5

Brand New-U (UK/Ireland/Netherlands/English dialogue/100 min)

If you read a summary of Brand New-U, you’d seriously consider parting with your hard earned: Nadia (Nora-Jane Noone: The Magdalene Sisters, The Descent) is abducted from her home by masked military-types. Her boyfriend, Slater (Lachlan Nieboer: TV’s Torchwood, Downton Abbey), tracks her down to Brand New-U, a company that gives its customers new personalities. Undergoing the shady firm’s procedures, Slater searches for clues about his girlfriend’s whereabouts, whilst trying to cling on to his memories, his identity.

With documentary filmmaker Simon Pummell’s first drama, he set out to make an elaborate SF that harks back to Philip K. Dick’s work. The trouble is, however good Pummell’s intentions were, he’s ended up with an incoherent, pretentious mess.

There are some interesting ideas here – By switching your personality, becoming an improved version of yourself, are you living a lie? Do we control our lives, or are big businesses, multi-million pound corporations dictating how we live? – and Pummell clearly wants to get you thinking, but the only thing that will be troubling your brain is wondering what the hell’s going on here. There’s no pace, the narrative jumps all over the place (that’s before we even get to the doppelgängers!), there’s nothing compelling or vaguely intriguing going on here. Instead, you sit there for over an hour-and-a-half having your patience tested to breaking point. If you manage to make it all the way to the credits, you’ve got more tolerance than your average human being.

Nieboer and Noone are both excellent actors, but here they’re cold, almost going through the motions, even wooden at times (Nieboer especially). You wonder whether Pummell wanted them to behave like this, if that’s what he had written down in his script? Whatever the reason, it stops you caring what happens to the two leads. There are car chases, kidnappings, fancy POV shots, but none of this matters when you’re not the faintest bit bothered about what happens to the people at the crux of the narrative.

For some reason, characters repeat each other’s dialogue. They’re not cockneys, this isn’t EastEnders (“I’m gonna teach you a lesson.” “You’re gonna teach me a lesson are ya, Phil?”), but there are scenes where characters say each other’s sentences not once, not twice, but three – even four! – times. It becomes tiresome the first time; after five, six scenes you want to kick the cinema seat in front of you.

If you thought Peter Jackson overused fade outs/fade ins in Lord of the Rings, Brand New-U doesn’t just break that record, it flattens it. There’s what feels like a solid half-hour of one scene fading out, then another fading in, for no fathomable reason. The only thing that explains Tim Roza’s lazy editing is he felt he wasn’t being paid enough.

The only thing that Pummel’s film has going for it are the visuals, Kubrick-inspired in Reinier van Brummelen’s use of striking colours, almost every frame symmetrical. The opening scene featuring a candle-lit party is beautiful to watch as a tracking shot explores the rooms of Slater and Nadia’s home. During the climax, the near-future/alternate London is shot in a deep red colour: cars, shop window displays, apartments. Like Brand New-U’s customers, the cinematography is faultless.

Brand New-U isn’t just style over substance, it’s style over some vaguely hinted at ideas, thinly written, impossible to care about characters, and a narrative that never gets into its stride or ever really goes anywhere. Behind the sleek photography there’s nothing worth bothering with. You won’t see a film like Brand New-U in 2015, and that’s a relief; it’s a frustrating, unsatisfying, crushingly disappointing experience. The worst film I saw at this year’s EIFF and, by some distance, the worst film I’ve seen so far this year.

2 out of 5

Cop Car (USA/English dialogue/86 min)

Fargo meets Stand by Me is one way of describing director Jon Watts’ second feature (his debut being the Eli Roth-starring Clown). Ten-year-old school friends Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Heys Wellford) steal the car of the title, taking it for a joy ride. Trouble is, the car belongs to the town’s corrupt, screw the consequences sheriff (Kevin Bacon), and he wants it back.

As a film buff, I’m there at the cinema at least once-a-week, sometimes two or three times. The strange thing about me is that I can’t just sit down and watch a film, I’m there picking holes in it, expecting something to go wrong somewhere. I can walk out at the credits, having enjoyed what I’ve sat through, but there’s usually the tiniest, minor thing that, for me, stops it being perfect. I’m high maintenance, OCD, or just plain fussy when it comes to my films. With Watts’ Cop Car, I couldn’t find a single thing wrong with it.

Watts’ script gets the mix of humour and uncomfortable, shuffle round in your seat tension absolutely right. Things start off like a scene straight out of The Goonies (swearing aside) as we’re introduced to the young leads. Harrison is the more naïve, gullible of the two, letting his friend take the lead, doing what he’s told. Travis is cocky, brave, never letting on that he’s just as clueless and naïve as Harrison. Less than a minute in and you already like them; there are moments any adult will recognise from childhood: thinking you’re a rebel because you said a swear word, asking the big, important questions in life like which animal would win in a fight, and fooling around with things grown-ups tell you to leave alone, just because it’s exciting; the danger of being caught. We watch Travis and Harrison struggling to push down on the car’s accelerator because they’re so short, wearing bullet proof vests, firing guns at each other, and yelling down the police radio that cops drink “diarrhoea milkshakes.” It’s naïve, childish fun, Travis and Harrison thinking the world is just them and them only, never considering that there are big, bad people out there and that there’s such a thing as consequences.

This is when Kevin Bacon shows up. Sporting an oddly sinister moustache, he can be charming, callous, blundering at times, and will do whatever is needed to save his own skin. This is Bacon on fine form, possibly the best he’s ever been, skilfully swapping back-and-forth from comedy to being genuinely unnerving. Bacon’s first scene delivers a superb punch line. You know what’s coming, but that doesn’t stop you laughing. We see him struggling to dispose of a body. It’s a gruelling, drawn out scene, which, while this sheriff has clearly done something terrible, you feel sorry for him because he’s going through hell trying to get rid of the evidence. Having finally managed to hide the corpse, he goes back to where he parked the car, relieved, only to find it gone. Bacon’s reaction is perfect. In a later scene, Bacon talks to the boys on the radio. His voice is gentle, friendly; his face is snarling, raging, struggling to keep calm.

It’s not just Watts’ script that stands out, the visuals are also special: this might play out like a ‘70s B-movie, but it’s smarter, more elaborate. Inspired by Roger Deakins’ photography on No Country for Old Men, Matthew J. Lloyd and Larkin Seiple use panoramas, wide shots of the woods and fields, stretching for miles. You can’t fail to miss the point here: How insignificant the boys and their actions are.

The age-old rule of cinema is that nothing bad can happen (or you won’t see anything bad happen) to children. You soon learn that, with Cop Car, this rule is ignored, broken, and ends up as road kill. This is what makes things so tense to watch. Even with the best, thrilling blockbusters, you have some idea where things are going, but not here. Travis and Harrison are confronted with some cold, brutal life lessons, and more than a tiny drop of blood is spilt.

Cop Car was the talk of this year’s Sundance, and you can see why. One minute it can be intense, the next minute playful, the next scene littered with dark black comedy. None of it jars, all of it works. So many times, Watts could have gone for the formulaic, easy option. Not once during the film’s hour-and-a-half does this happen.

Make sure you watch Cop Car. It’s my favourite film of this year’s EIFF and the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

5 out of 5

Cut Snake (Australia/English dialogue/94 min)

You’d be forgiven for skipping over Cut Snake, it sounds like every other “man comes out of prison, starts a new life, only his past catches up with him” drama. Alex Russell (Chronicle, The Host) plays the seemingly perfect husband-to-be. He’s handsome, polite, more than happy to help the parents-in-law with any DIY jobs. Trouble rears its ugly head when Sullivan Stapleton (BskyB’s Strike Back), his former cell mate, tracks him down, expecting Russell to be his literal partner in crime and refusing to take no for an answer. It all sounds by-the-numbers familiar, but Cut Snake has a twist that, if not exactly a genre classic, makes it worth your time.

Two things put Australian filmmaker Tony Ayres’s third fiction feature towards the top-end of the “reformed prisoner who gets drawn back in” sub-genre: Blake Ayshford’s screenplay, and the performances.

There’s no middle-ground with crime dramas, they’re either in the plot or character-driven camp, no merging the two. Ayshford goes for character-driven, giving one tiny clue at a time, explaining what happened to Russell and Stapleton when they were in prison, and why Stapleton was so doggedly determined to find his old cell mate. There’s plenty of requisite sweaty, macho violence, but Ayshford takes the time to explain the rationale behind it.

Your first impression of Russell and Stapleton is that you’re watching two genre clichés, but you soon find out there’s more going on here. The two leads get plenty to do, neither of them squandering what Ayshford has given them. Stapleton makes an impressive, convincing psychopath (“Cut Snake” being Aussie slang for someone who’s wild, out-of-control). He can do the uncomfortable, scary, in-your-face scenes, but he more than rises up to the challenge with the subtler moments, when we realise how scarred and damaged Stapleton is. Russell more than does the job of a man who is living a lie. He appears to be this gentle, harmless man, but the more Stapleton threatens his perfect, small town life, the more desperate and erratic Russell becomes.

Cut Snake is a superior Aussie film noir, with just enough twists and new ideas. A memorable addition to a well-worn genre.

3 out of 5

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (USA/English dialogue/102 min)

There are plenty of comedies and dramas out there about girls going through their teenage years, but very few are like writer/director Marielle Heller’s first feature. The Diary of a Teenage Girl features explicit, no holds barred dialogue on sex, sexuality, puberty, plus copious amounts of shagging.

Set in San Francisco in 1976, young Minnie (Bel Powley) is already seeing the world differently. Her mother (Kristen Wiig) doesn’t so much encourage her daughter as give her a barrage of abuse, telling her to seek grown-up thrills anywhere and any way she can. Starting an affair with her stepdad (Alexander Skarsgård), Minnie learns some harsh life lessons when she tries to control a relationship with a man two decades her senior.

The fantastic thing about Heller’s film is her script; it doesn’t sugar coat female puberty, try to make it trendy or fluff it up for mainstream audiences. This is how teenage girls think and talk about sex. The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn’t for prudes, its matter-of-fact approach making it stand-out amongst the teen dramas that followed Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Juno.

Powley is amazing as Minnie, her transformation from a daydreaming teenager to embracing the tail end of the sexual revolution is at times hilariously as well as uncomfortably convincing.

Heller makes subtle use of animation in the film, bringing Minnie’s diary and comics to life, using ink and pencil drawings to accompany the teenager’s thoughts and monologues, making her words even more thoughtful or comical. Brandon Trost’s cinematography gets it absolutely right in recreating the counter-culture of ‘70s San Francisco: long hair, bright colours, baggy jeans, dodgy facial hair – it’s all here.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl does feel like it’s ten, fifteen minutes too long. The narrative is resolved, Minnie testing her boundaries, venturing as far as she can go, and ending up a different (not necessarily better) person, yet there’s no sign of the credits. It’s as if Heller is making sure everyone watching gets the point she’s trying to make. For me, the film would have had more of an impact, more of a punch, if it had ended earlier.

You can’t argue that The Diary of a Teenage Girl is original, talented stuff. There’s no simple answer as to what goes on inside a teenage girl’s head; for Minnie there’s drugs, a sexually experimenting best friend (Madeleine Waters), a mother who, like her daughter, struggles to convey what’s going on inside that skull of hers, plus there’s San Francisco itself. Heller might get self-indulgent towards the end, but otherwise the film’s skilfully handled. A smart look at growing up that has something different to say.

3 out of 5

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (UK/English dialogue/110 min)

Considering sci-fi comic 2000AD has been going since 1977, nurtured some of the industry’s biggest names (Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Carlos Ezquerra, Glenn Fabry, to name a tiny few) and has had more than its fair share of controversy over the years, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for a documentary to come out about the British institution.

With the exception of the reclusive Moore (while it would have been brilliant to have him on board, it’s no real surprise that he turned down being interviewed), director Paul Goodwin has managed to get all of the British comic legends together for his film, including Neil Gaiman, John Wagner, Kevin O’Neill, Mick McMahon, and 2000AD creator Pat Mills. Gaiman is the real highlight, his dry, eloquent sense of humour stealing the show.

There are some fantastic insights and little-known facts in Future Shock, my favourite – if favourite is the right word – being that the woman shot by the Russians on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Invasion, who looks suspiciously like Margaret Thatcher, is our Maggie; Mills and his team just about managing to get away with it at the time.

I read 2000AD as a kid during the ‘90s, with no idea how close the comic came to being shut down. While I can remember reading Space Girls – 2000AD’s patronising and failed attempt to attract female readers – and I Was a Teenage Tax Consultant – John Wagner does Carry On – thinking “What the hell?”, I had no clue it was touch-and-go as to whether the comic would remain on the shelves.

While Future Shock has some special, stranger than fiction anecdotes, with a running time verging on two hours, it feels like it’s too long with not enough to tell; a lot of points repeated and hammered home (Mills, as much of a character as he is, really likes the sound of his own voice). Shaving off twenty minutes would definitely have helped.

While Future Shock can be a surprising, riveting documentary – it’s interesting just how much bickering and backstabbing went on at the publication – into a comic whose influence can be seen throughout the world (especially at DC, where half of Vertigo’s team came from 2000AD, and the independents), there’s not enough insight or meat on its bones to justify the screen time. It’s as if everyone involved got so caught up in the legacy of 2000AD, no one stopped to think whether this made a consistently absorbing film. Decent enough, but could have done with someone as ruthless as Dredd in the editing suite.

3 out of 5

Hellions (Canada/English dialogue/82 mins)

Hellions was another film I was keen to sit and watch, getting hold of a ticket pretty much as soon as I set foot in Scotland’s capital. It all sounds like your typical horror fare: pregnant teenager Dora (Chloe Rose) is home alone on Halloween night. Instead of being menaced by an unstoppable knife-wielding killer, evil little munchkins are after her and the baby. All very familiar late-night scares. What caught my attention, and made the horror buff in me a tiny little bit excited, was when I found out Hellions was directed by Bruce McDonald. If you like your horror films and have never heard of McDonald then shame on you, he came up with one of the 21st century’s best fright fests: Pontypool. Like Pontypool, I was expecting Hellions to take a seen-it-all-before set-up and add new twists to it, as well as throwing in plenty of quirky, oddball laughs. The maddeningly disappointing thing about McDonald’s latest is that it’s just another lazy, by-the-numbers horror. You sit there wondering whether McDonald had anything to do with Hellions, or if there was an imposter on set yelling “Action!”

The film looks decent enough, resembling your bat shit demented ‘80s horrors such as Larry Cohen’s The Stuff or William Wesley’s Scarecrows: it’s got the tone, the looks, even the synth score all spot on. Thumbs up to McDonald for not giving us another useless female horror lead who runs around screaming. Chloe Rose might be dashing round in a tight-fitting prom dress, but at least she’s resourceful, managing to carve up several munchkins who get in her way. If anything, it’s the men who are appallingly dumb, poor Rossif Sutherland – as Dora’s doctor – barely managing ten minutes of screen time.

The problem I have with Hellions is that it could have been so much better. There I was expecting a script littered with themes of fear and apprehension about being a teenage mum, but screenwriter Pascal Trottier doesn’t bother with any of this, he just has our heroine bumping off short people. There’s no character development – does Dora even want this baby? – no subtext, nothing that hasn’t been done hundreds of times before.

If McDonald was trying to do something smart with Hellions then he’s failed miserably (is the film some kind of anti-abortion message?). Unlike the first-class Pontypool, Hellions is destined to appear on some obscure digital channel, or in the bargain bin of your local pound shop.

2 out of 5

Index Zero (Italy/English dialogue/84 min)

Index Zero is a post-apocalypse drama, the title referring to a worldwide scoring that, with scarce food and water, determines how useful a person is; whether they should be allowed to remain in society or be kicked out into the grim wasteland that’s left of our planet. Kurt (Simon Merrells) and his pregnant girlfriend Eve (Ana Ularu) trek through the desert in the hope that someone can safely deliver their baby, the three of them starting a new life together on the other side of the city walls.

There are a number of things that director Lorenzo Sportiello’s first feature gets absolutely right. It looks the part in a bleak, slightly ripping off John Hillcoat’s The Road, sort of way: it looks like it was filmed in a massive quarry. The entire cast do a fine job; no one jars. You absolutely believe that Merrells and Ularu are a couple struggling to survive, desperate to make it to civilisation. There’s a stand-out scene involving Kurt and Eve crawling through a tunnel so they can sneak their way into the city. Filmed using the barest amount of light, plus space-invading close-ups, those five-to-ten minutes are nightmarishly uncomfortable.

The glaring flaw here is Sportellio, Claudio Corbucci and Francesco Cioce’s script; most of the time it drags along on its belly like some poor animal that’s been hit by a car. I’m all up for a bit of thoughtful, brooding science fiction (much like The Road), but barely anything pulse-racing or of any interest happens during Index Zero’s eighty-odd minutes. All the best bits chopped down to a thirty-minute short? That would have worked. As it is, there’s scarcely any pace. Prepare to be looking at your watch and wondering if this is going anywhere.

Worst of all, Sportiello copies Lord of the Rings, and not in a good way. There are several fade outs/ins during the last ten-to-fifteen minutes. You expect things to wrap up, the credits to roll, only for another redundant scene to follow. There’s no need for these several finales; a quarter-of-an-hour could come off the running time right there.

Tragically, despite the efforts of the cast and crew, Index Zero has no tempo, nothing to move things along. You stop caring what happens to Kurt and Eve and start aching for something a tiny bit interesting to happen. What could have been a thought-provoking, take-no-prisoners commentary on immigration ends up being a waste of an idea.

2 out of 5

The Violators (UK/English dialogue/97 min)

It feels like EIFF can’t go a year without at least one British council estate drama. Here it’s the turn of author Helen Walsh (Brass, Once Upon a Time in England), with her directing debut, The Violators. Fifteen-year-old Shelly (Lauren McQueen: Channel 4’s The Mill) begins an affair with pawn shop owner and local bad boy Mikey (Stephen Lord: Channel 4’s PhoneShop, BskyB’s Penny Dreadful), not realising the consequences this will have on the people she cares about.

You can’t fault the performances here. McQueen is an impressive lead. Round the Cheshire housing estates, Shelly is tough, with a smart mouth, acting like nothing fazes her. Behind closed doors, she struggles to look after her little brother, having this fairy tale outlook on life, that someone or something will come along and rescue her. McQueen can handle playing both sides of Shelly; she’s true-to-life. We watch Shelly wandering the streets, engaging in petty crime, but we see the reasons behind what she’s doing; she’s not the demonic, soulless teenager the Daily Mirror likes writing about. Stephen Lord has a long-running CV of playing complicated wrong ‘uns. As Mikey, his goal is to control Shelly, he doesn’t want anyone else in her world other than him, and he does this gradually, subtly by giving her money, buying her presents, then beating up people who threaten her brother. He wants Shelly to feel like she owes him. Brogan Ellis (BBC’s Waterloo Road) deserves a mention as seventeen-year-old Rachel; she lives on a wealthy estate with her mum, becoming increasingly obsessed with Shelly. Rachel has everything she could want, gets spoilt rotten, yet she follows Shelly around, encouraging her to do petty crime. Shelly steals from shops, penny arcades because she has scarcely any money to look after herself, let alone her brother; there’s no need for Rachel to do any of this. It’s not until the film’s climax that we find out the reasons behind Rachel’s behaviour.

Tobin Jones does a first-rate job of making the locations for The Violators look like they’re bearing down on the people living there; a dismal, industrial landscape that hasn’t changed in the last thirty years or more.

The Violators’ problem is that there are so many British council estate dramas out there, it fails to stand out. All of the sub-genre’s boxes are ticked, there’s very little in Walsh’s script that’s done differently. This won’t try your patience or outstay its welcome like Ben Drew’s (Plan B’s) Ill Manors; it’s at the top end of this bloated British staple, the trouble is it does everything you would expect here, no more, no less.

If you like your dramas no-nonsense and visceral then you should add The Violators to your list of films to watch, just don’t expect it to surprise you or tear up the rule book.

3 out of 5

Who Am I – No System Is Safe (Germany/German and Russian dialogue with English subtitles/107 min)

Baran bo Odar’s Who Am I does for computer hacking what CSI does for forensics: it makes furiously typing on a computer keyboard sexy.

There’s only two things Benjamin (Tom Schilling) is good at: magic and hacking. Meeting fellow hackers Stephan (Wotan Wilke Möhring) and Paul (Antoine Monot Jr.) during community service, they found the activist group CLAY, starting off with playful, small-scale cyber-attacks before going for the big time, targeting billion dollar corporations. This is when things get complicated and deadly.

Odar’s film is what it is: it’s Fast & Furious with computers instead of cars. Thankfully, Odar and Jantje Friese’s script has a sense of humour, which helps during some of the less plausible scenes. The performances are all decent. While Benjamin and his gang are your usual stereotypes, at least they’re likeable, throwing sharp one-liners and insults at each other.

A large chunk of Who Am I’s narrative has Benjamin sat furiously typing on a keyboard, which would be mind-numbingly boring to watch. Smartly, Odar and his cinematographer, Nikolaus Summerer avoid this by setting the film in something called the “Darknet” – Facebook Messenger for hackers. Yet, rather than lots of dull text on the screen, Darknet is shown as a subway train straight out of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, all the hackers in hoodies and creepy-looking masks as they circle each other. It sure beats watching a pale, skinny guy in his underpants, perched in front of his laptop.

Who Am I is a teenage boy’s fantasy, but at least it’s not a dumb, cynical money maker, Odar and Friese throwing in several twists (some, admittedly, a tiny bit far-fetched) that you won’t see coming. It’s thrilling, keeps you hooked, and it’s a lot of fun.

3 out of 5

This year’s EIFF didn’t come close to last year’s overall line-up. That’s not a dig or pointing the finger at anyone; the stars were in alignment for 2014’s festival and it would have taken something God-like miraculous to match it. Saying that, there were three films at this year’s line-up that I’ll be rushing to get hold of once they’re out on Blu-Ray: Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s return to World War Two, 13 Minutes, and – my stand-out favourite – Jon Watts’ Cop Car.

Other films that deserve to be seen are Senna director Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy; Jake Gavin’s bittersweet Peter Mullan-starring drama, Hector; Emily Ting’s It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, which, while it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of (500) Days of Summer, it definitely breathes the same air; the surprisingly restrained and moving Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie horror, Maggie; The Shammasian Brothers’ one man boxing drama (performed by an astonishing James Cosmo), The Pyramid Texts; Rodrigo Garcia’s visually magnificent, packed full of symbolism Last Days in the Desert; possibly the funniest film of 2015, Robert Carlisle’s directorial debut, The Legend of Barney Thomson; and the gleefully violent, ‘80s inspired Turbo Kid.

There were several turkeys at this year’s festival, all of them having the same problem; style over very little substance: Jake Chapman’s The Marriage of Reason and Squalor; Justin Trefgarne’s Narcopolis; David Blair’s The Messenger; Bruce McDonald’s Hellions; Lorenzo Sportiello’s Index Zero; and – the worst offender - Simon Pummell’s Brand New-U. Considering this age of austerity we’re living in, the arts taking the massive brunt of it, you would think no one’s going to offer up the money for a rushed, lacklustre, nowhere near as inventive as it thinks it is, screenplay. It’s reassuring in a way; if these films can find funding and get released (even if it’s a limited, fifty-odd screens nationwide release), there’s hope for all of us! On the flip side, depressingly, it comes down to that age-old adage of it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. You can be as talentless as those folk who write jokes for Christmas crackers, but if you’re cosy with the top chiefs of Creative Scotland, you’re well on your way.

Not wanting to get all cynical or start spitting blood, these are an insignificant number of films in what has otherwise been a terrific week; well worth the lack of sleep and non-stop abuse of my liver. EIFF has this knack of finding future cult hits long before anyone else, it’s the reason I go year after year, that smug look that creeps onto my face when I’m down the pub and a friend asks me if I’ve seen this gobsmacking film that’s come out of nowhere? Yep, saw it six months ago up in Edinburgh. Guaranteed, I’ll be back again next year, spending a ludicrous amount on alcohol and bucket-loads of caffeine.

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Forty years ago today saw the UK premiere of a film that is a bona fide cult classic. A film that revamped the midnight matinee. A film that has a very deep and personal meaning for me. That film: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

A tribute to the sci-fi and horror B-movies of the 1940s and 1950s, the film sees newly-engaged, clean-cut, all-American couple Brad Majors and Janet Weiss take a road trip to see a former tutor, only to suffer a blow-out on the way. In the pouring down rain, they trek to an old castle, home to the eccentric Dr Frank-n-Furter and his equally eccentric coterie of servants, groupies and conventionalists. It is a night Brad and Janet will remember for a very long time...

The Rocky Horror Show started life as a stage musical, written by Richard O'Brien and directed by Jim Sharman, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 19th June 1973. The original London cast included Julie Covington, Christopher Malcolm, Tim Curry, Richard O'Brien, Patricia Quinn, 'Little' Nell Campbell, Rayner Bourton and Jonathan Adams. American producer Lou Adler saw the show in the winter of 1973 and immediately purchased the U.S. theatrical rights, with the US premiere taking place at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles in 1974. The film deal followed shortly afterwards.

Sharman directed and Curry, O'Brien, Quinn and Campbell reprised their stage roles as Dr Frank n Furter, Riff-Raff, Magenta and Columbia. Jonathan Adams, who played the Narrator onstage in London, was cast as Dr Everett Scott whilst Meat Loaf (who'd been part of the Roxy cast) was cast in the role of Eddie the delivery boy. Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon took the roles of Brad and Janet and Charles Gray played the Narrator.

However, the film almost had a very different look to it with Mick Jagger playing Frank, Steve Martin playing Brad and- something that would have been utterly wonderful- Vincent Price as the Narrator! 

The film was shot at Bray Studios with location shooting at Oakley Court in Berkshire, an old country house that had been used in Hammer horror films such as The Brides Of Dracula and The Plague Of The Zombies (and which is now a luxury hotel). However, at the time, Oakley Court was a bit run down, leaking and damp. In an often-repeated story, Susan Sarandon caught pneumonia whilst filming there.

The film opens with 'Science Fiction Double Feature' which name-checks everything from King Kong to The Day The Earth Stood Still, Dana Andrews to Leo G. Carroll. On stage, the song is performed by an old-style cinema usherette (usually played by the same actress who plays Magenta). For the film, it is sung by a disembodied pair of bright red lips which have become one of the film's most iconic images (inspired by the surrealist artist Man Ray). The lips belong to Patricia Quinn, but the voice is that of Richard O'Brien.

One of the things everybody knows from The Rocky Horror Show (aside from the cross-dressing) is the Time Warp. Originally added to the stage show to pad out a modest running time of 40 minutes, the Time Warp has become something done at every school disco, birthday party or wedding reception. Even if people don't know it's originally from Rocky Horror, everybody knows the dance. 

In the film, it forms a brilliant prelude to Frank's first entrance and there's something really quite joyful in seeing Charles Gray's buttoned-up Narrator become more and more enthusiastic as it goes on:

And for added strangeness, here's the late, great Christopher Lee telling us how to do The Time Warp:


This was the first film for several cast members, including Tim Curry and, for a time, he became defined as Frank-n-Furter, something he wasn't entirely comfortable with. Despite an impressive filmography, including things such as Legend, Clue, IT and Muppet Treasure Island, for many people he will always be Frank. 

Quinn, O'Brien, Campbell and Gray also appeared together in Shock Treatment, the 1981 sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show which features Brad and Janet (now played by Cliff de Young and Jessica Harper) as contestants on a twisted game show. 

Whilst the original cinema run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show didn't do too well, it became a classic on the midnight matinee circuit with shadow casts performing along with the film, the encouragement of callbacks and the throwing of various items (toilet roll, rice, hotdogs). The first midnight showing was held on April Fools' Day 1976 at the Waverly Theatre in New York. It is a truly indescribable feeling to be sat in a cinema with a couple of hundred people- mostly dressed up- shouting various obscenities at the screen as the film trundles on.

In 2005, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was selected by the US Library of Congress for preservation in the US National Film Registry. This honour is given to films considered 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'.

* * *

I wrote at the start that The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a very deep and personal meaning for me. 

I first saw the film during the summer of 1995 at a time in my life when I was still figuring out who I was. Sitting in my friend's nan's front room one hot August day to watch the film is one of my abiding memories of that summer. The film was campy, frothy, funny and... dare I say it? sexy. And not just the rippling muscles of Peter Hinwood either; there is something achingly sexy about Tim Curry (maybe that's just me?) Anyway, it was a seminal moment for me. Things weren't rigid, defined in black and white. There could be shades of grey. You could be attracted to whoever you were attracted to and that was OK. You weren't wrong or broken or needing to be fixed. 
For someone with major body confidence issues and a crippling lack of self-esteem, the film and the stage show have been a real lifesaver. By going to see the show or going to a midnight matinee of the film, you enter a place where it doesn't matter what you are or what you look like; you can embrace yourself fully in whatever way that manifests itself and nobody else would criticise or belittle you for it. I'm a big lad and wouldn't ever dream of going out in just a pair of gold lame underwear but I have seen people bigger than me who have and there's been no bullying, no cat-calling, just support and friendship for those few hours. 

Ultimately, the film's central philosophy of 'don't dream it, be it' is not a bad way to live your life. However, sometimes it's easier said than done and it's something that I still struggle with. But I'm trying to live my life how I want to live it, trying to be it instead of just dreaming it. And I have this wonderfully eccentric, camp and glorious film to thank for showing me the way.


On Thursday September 17th 2015, there will be a live cinema broadcast of The Rocky Horror Show from London's Playhouse Theatre in aid of Amnesty International. David Bedella, Ben Forster and Haley Flaherty will take the roles of Frank, Brad and Janet respectively whilst Richard O'Brien, Stephen Fry, Emma Bunton and Mel Giedroyc will share the role of the Narrator. Tickets for this screening can be purchased here.