Film Reviews: Glasgow Film Festival 2016

Tim Abrams takes a look at the films of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival

Irish filmmaker John Carney, who brought us the beautiful and moving low budget musical romantic drama Once before being promptly enticed into making Begin Again – essentially a polished, star casted remake of Once – has escaped the clutches of Hollywood to return to form with another stunning musical set in his native Dublin. Sing Street, a coming of age tale featuring a largely unknown cast, tells the story of a boy inspired by the revolutionary new music of Duran Duran, The Clash and A-ha, who starts a band in order to impress a girl. What sets the film apart from its rivals is the passion and emotion which infects every moment. I cannot think of a director working today who captures the simple pain and ecstasy of life without any frills better than Carney.

In High Rise, the collision of novelist J. G. Ballard’s savage allegory and director Ben Wheatley’s unique, genre-defying, chaotic and deeply personal creative vision is a joy to behold. The performances are fantastic across the board, with Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller and Luke Evans, who gives what is without a doubt the finest performance of his career so far. Human civilisation, consolidated within a single tower block, embodies order in one moment and total, anarchic disorder in another. Visually, the film is full to bursting with symbolism and metaphor, and the more you look and think, the more that you get out of it. My only concern with the film is that it does not do justice to some aspects of the source material. At times, Wheatley takes deadly serious allegory and turns it into something to be laughed at. Nevertheless, the film has much to say, and conveys its message effectively and at times shockingly.

Jeremy Saulnier, who directed the 2013 cult thriller Blue Ruin, follows up that brutal yet quiet and reserved film with Green Room. Where Blue Ruin languished in its own stillness, Green Room indulges in a far more frantic chaos. The central story arc, in which a punk rock band who play a gig at a remote neo-nazi compound before witnessing something that should not have been seen, is stripped back and streamlined in such a way that it becomes almost obsolete. By the time Patrick Stewart and his ‘red laced’ friends turn up, the plot is the last thing the audience is concentrating on. Brutal, bloody, visceral, but a whole lot of fun.

With The Ones Below, screenwriter David Farr turns his hand here to directing for the first time with a thriller of quiet, unsettling, dreamlike nature. The references to Hitchcock and Polanski are overt, with Rosemary’s Baby and Vertigo being key touchstones. However, Farr uses recognisable techniques and ideas in order to craft a work entirely of his own creation. The imagery of water and glass, tying into ideas of voyeurism and separation, is rife, as are the metaphorical conceptions of doubt, guilt and suspicion. The deep fragmentation and mistrust between the characters makes the film a deeply uncomfortable watch, and yet The Ones Below is a thoroughly engaging film which does not give the audience a moment to relax their attention.

Documentarian Kent Jones uses acclaimed French filmmaker François Truffaut’s 1966 book of the same name Hitchcock/Truffaut as an initial reference point from which he launches into an in depth study of the works, techniques and achievements of ‘The Master of Suspense’. The documentary includes interviews from a plethora of contemporary filmmakers, including Wes Anderson, David Fincher and Richard Linklater, who all provide their own personal insight into what made the great British director such a unique artist, and how he changed the way in which both filmmakers and audiences thought about films. This is a must watch for anyone seriously interested in the development of cinema at one of the most pivotal times in its one hundred and twenty year history.

Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs is an interesting piece of cinema, a study of how people deal with tragedy and grief both on their own and as a family. There are definitely flashes of brilliance, but the central narrative is somewhat disjointed and flawed. The director was present at the Glasgow Film Theatre for a Q&A after the screening, and it was fascinating to hear him say that he conceptualised a number of individual, isolated scenes before he had drawn up a complete storyline, and this certainly echoes my misgivings about the film. Nevertheless, the end product is certainly a well acted, engaging and thought provoking film in which the audience is encouraged to reflect on the way in which we interact and communicate with one another, particularly at difficult times.

In I Am Belfast, film critic-come-maker Mark Cousins revisits his home town of Belfast to explore its people, its relationship to nature, and its past. In his own deeply poetic, dreamy and profound way, Cousins personifies the city as a 100,000 year old woman who talks directly to the audience about the unique personality that Belfast has. As a documentary about Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular, the film of course discusses the impact of the Troubles on the city, but does not linger too long, preferring to place them within the context of a history that reaches back for thousands and thousands of years. I Am Belfast is an ode to home, and a wonderful insight into the nature of community and how we as a community grow together.

If there is one subject that has been ever present in the Hollywood movies since the inception of the studio system in the early 20th century, it is Hollywood itself. However, films such as A Star is Born, Sunset Boulevard and the Coen Brothers’ very own Barton Fink have usually portrayed it as a dour, vacuous place where greed and ill will rule. Hail, Caesar! does away with this genre convention, instead filling the studio sets and executive offices with swathes of light and colour. From Tilda Swinton’s twin gossip columnists to Ralph Fiennes stuck up director of costume dramas and Channing Tatum’s camp yet strangely sinister actor, the film’s characters are caricatures of life; humorous, irritating, absurd and yet utterly irrepressible. Although the film revolves around the central story of fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) attempting to track down the kidnapped star of the titular film within a film Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star is undoubtedly Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle, a cowboy/actor thrown into the limelight by the unseen, transcendent studio owner. It is through his eyes that we see this crazy world, and his innocence as a self-proclaimed outsider allows the audience to enjoy a position of unbiased voyeurism.

Austrian duo Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz bring to the screen a deeply disturbing and intense psychological thriller with Goodnight Mommy. From the moment the camera presents us with a perfectly angular, futuristic, wood panelled house in the idyllic countryside, it is clear that this is not going to be a happy tale. Twin brothers Elias and Lukas welcome home their mother, who has just undergone some form of cosmetic surgery and has her face wrapped almost completely in bandages. However, as time passes the brother begin to grow suspicious of the woman in their home, and question whether or not she actually is their mother. There are moments in the second act which seem to sag a little, scenes which do not seem to merit inclusion into an otherwise very tight script, but once the third act commences such moments vanish, to be replaced by brutality and horror in bucket loads. With a truly harrowing ending, Goodnight Mommy sits comfortably in a long tradition of European psychological horror cinema.

Maryland (alternatively titled Disorder) is an action thriller starring Matthias Schoenaerts, who gives his best performance since Rust and Bone, as a soldier suffering from PTSD who takes up a position as private security to the family of a wealthy, and morally dubious, French businessman. Sadly the first half of the film, in which the characters are introduced and their relationships are allowed to develop in order to set up the events of the action-orientated second half, was poor. The script felt as though it was two or three rewrites away from being workable, with scenes that should be brief snapshots lasting for an incomprehensible length of time and dialogue which should flow naturally between characters feeling extremely forced and is at times rather irritating. The second half, in which the tension ramps up and the action scenes come think and fast, is a significant improvement and is intensely gripping. However, it does not do enough to make up for a very weak opening and set up.


[Tim Abrams]

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