Formation Festival: Cowards Anonymous (10-12 July)

“Leaves you feeling pleasantly contemplative”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Cowards Anonymous – a support group for shy people who don’t like to make tough decisions. Hosted by some very colourful characters (who begin wearing masks), the welcome given feels more like you’re about to participate in a bizarre shared event, rather than sit back in the shadows to merely observe. And a shared event it becomes, as audience members are picked on at frequent intervals to give their views on a variety of topics and questions.

For many, the term ‘audience participation’ is the stuff of nightmares – the thought of being dragged up on stage, laughed at, or even just spoken to from the comfort of your seat by a performer with a big personality and a microphone – can send shudders down one’s spine and bring on the cold sweats alarmingly quickly. And while one of the aims of Cowards Anonymous is to create a sense of discomfort and awakening to some rather sticky issues, it is mediated in a relaxed and comedic way that nurtures a safe space in order to openly discuss difficult topics – mainly moral choices and philosophical debates.

Indeed, the main strength of this production is the pace and personality driven through it by performers Izzy Hourihane and Eilidh Albert-Recht who do the bulk of the direct addresses to the audience. They bounce off each other well and successfully navigate the tightrope between likeability and authority throughout. Their performance also gives the frequent sense of having gone completely off-book, adding to that feeling of awakening through nigh-on cringeworthy uncertainty of what happens next. Gripping stuff.

Josh Overton’s script dissects the notion of what it means to be a coward, and indeed what it means to be oneself – given the acting up we all do in different situations to please those around us. Posing several thought-provoking scenarios and more than a fair whack of comedy, it leaves you feeling pleasantly contemplative, even if the killer punch of the piece is somewhat lacking. Many excellent ideas are presented, but none quite strongly enough to elicit purposeful action.

Director Tyler Mortimer does well to highlight the comedic and playful aspects of the production, yet while the pacing is generally quite rip-rollicking and upbeat, some more variation in tone and timbre might help emphasise the points being made by this piece.

For many reasons, this show is likely to be divisive, yet for those open to something new, it’s an enlightening way to spend an hour. For me, this production just needs to shake off some of its scrappy and unpolished edges, embrace its direct and intelligent confrontational approach and go full steam ahead. It’s refreshing to have one’s mind challenged in this thoughtful way, and I’d encourage more people to do the same.

 

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 July)

Visit the Assembly Roxy archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Formation Festival: Conspiracy (11-12 July)

“A sterling effort”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Loring Mandel’s Conspiracy, which many may know from the 2001 HBO film starring Kenneth Branagh, dramatises the 1942 Wannsee conference in Nazi Germany – where several powerful members of various agencies and government departments met to discuss and agree upon a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem”. Undoubtedly one of the major turning points in global history, it is almost sickening now to witness the frank discussions from these men of how best to be rid of millions – millions – of Jews. Strap in.

Upon entering Assembly Roxy’s large Central space, you get a feeling something big is going to happen: the impressive design encompasses a crescent shaped 15-seat conference table – complete with place names, glasses and cigarettes – while a full-on buffet spread is arranged behind it. This is a production that doesn’t shy away from details, as the excellent vintage costuming also pertains to.

Stylistically, Mandel’s script doesn’t quite have the wow-factor of some of its comparable contemporaries: the dialogue doesn’t sing as much as in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, while it lacks some of the narrative drive of Reginal Rose’s 12 Angry Men. What it does have, though, is a gut-wrenching sense of inevitability as the decision is reached with a pitiful defence of humanity, and it’s this short journey which makes it a powerful ensemble piece – achingly relevant to the political landscape unfolding in America now.

Director Robin Osman gives himself a mammoth task in pulling off this production, and a real strength is managing the cast of 16 at all points to maintain interest and relevant focus. Indeed the down-time moments of the meeting are almost more impressive than the lengthy debate, which often seems at odds with itself when it comes to levels of tension, frustration and power with each character. The overall presentation comes across as slick and well-rehearsed, though some cast members are somewhat guilty of overacting their smaller parts, creating a bizarre sense of imbalance to those with a more subtle approach.

For me, the standout performers are: Alexander Gray as Dr Wilhelm Stuckart, who navigates the most complex emotional journey throughout the piece; Chris Pearson as Dr Wilhelm Kritzinger, for exuding a natural quiet authority; and Ben Blow for his compelling and convincing turn as Otto Hoffman.

Overall, this is a sterling effort for an amateur production of this challenging play. It’s a bit of a slog to sit through, but well worth it for the vital history lesson, if nothing else.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 June)

Visit the Assembly Roxy archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

EIFF: “Swimming With Men” (30 June ’18)

“Fun performances and sweet turns of narrative … Swimming With Men is a comedic success”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Imagine The Full Monty, in Speedos. That’s the long and short of Swimming With Men. But despite some predictable setups, Oliver Parker’s new film is charming, sweet, and genuinely quite funny, mostly due to a delightful-as-ever performance by Rob Brydon. It is not a rush-to-the-theatre type of film, but as a nice way to spend an hour and a half, it does not disappoint.

Brydon plays Eric Scott, a bit of a loser who finds himself out of step with his own life. His accounting job is a monotonous waste of his time and talent, and he is growing apart from his wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) due to his own jealousy at her success as a local politician. The only place he finds peace is in the local pool, where he meets a motley crew of men who have banded together as a synchronized swimming team. Led by the charming Luke (Rupert Graves), the men decide to incorporate Eric into their routine, and so begins a series of amusing training sessions and actually quite impressive swimming stunt work. Played by various British comedy talents such as Adeel Akhtar, Daniel Mays, Thomas Turgoose, and the excellent Jim Carter, the team is a fun group to watch, and their onscreen chemistry is a highlight.

The story is a classic one, where Eric finds not only his own worth in his connection to these men, but the worth of self-expression and all that; credit again to Brydon that he makes this simplistic path far more pleasant than predictable. Charlotte Riley is notably fun as Susan, a swimmer who is drawn into being the team’s coach, and gets them good enough to complete in the international men’s championships in Milan for a rousing, very fun finale. The film is quite sweet, but not without its conflicts, as old habits, lost loves, and personal differences come to derail some of the team’s momentum over and over. But overall, this is an agreeable and satisfying film with something to say about male friendship and trust, which is very well suited to Brydon’s charm and talent as an Everyman with real presence. One scene of his in an elevator late in the film is a particular standout; perhaps it’s a shame he does not get more to do over the course of the film.

Parker’s aesthetic choices are unexceptional, yet liven up when the men are in and around the pool, a clever reflection of the freeing possibilities of the team and their routines. Some sequences are filmed quite creatively, especially the hypnotic boredom of Eric’s office and certain dreamlike shots of the men twirling and floating around underwater.

(Outside of the film itself, it is an intriguing coincidence that this year’s 71st Cannes Film Festival featured a French film called Le grand bain [or Sink or Swim], directed by Gilles Lellouche and starring Mathieu Amalric, which seems to have the exact same plot. Perhaps synchronized men’s swimming has become the choice cinematic metaphor for rethinking the mechanics of team-based masculinities of today.)

For Brydon’s commendable turn in the lead role, plus some fun performances and sweet turns of the narrative, Swimming With Men is a comedic success, and well worth a rainy-day watch. (So, perfect for Scottish audiences.)

This enjoyable film brought the 72nd Edinburgh International Film Festival to a close, and my coverage ends with it. It has been a truly fun and informative time watching and waxing about all these films and seeing film history made-in-Edinburgh. I hope my writing has been useful and thank you for reading!

 

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 30 June)

Go to Swimming with Men at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “Piercing” (30 June ’18)

“A trippy, entertaining, & masterfully nightmarish romp.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

For a completely bonkers, aesthetically anarchic, sonically and visually unnerving nightmare thrill ride, Piercing has a lot of humor, heart, and fabulous artistry beneath its hood. The film is directed by Nicolas Pesce, creator of well-liked arthouse horror The Eyes of My Mother, and based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, the mind behind some of Japanese cinema’s most twisted and depraved screenplays. This film is very much in the same vein, but swaps its Japanese influences for Italian Giallo and a charming 70s setting. While it is revoltingly violent and demented, somehow everything in Pesce’s film just works, and it is a truly outstanding genre film.

Piercing continues a pleasing trend in many of the films this year: performers who traditionally fill supporting roles getting a shot at the lead. Take, for example, Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle, Natalie Dormer in In Darkness, Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud, Rob Brydon in Swimming With Men, Steven Ogg in Solis. And now, Christopher Abbott as Reed, the enigmatic, bizarre focus of Pesce’s surreal tale. Abbott has turned in fascinating, unsettling, always capable performances in films like Sweet Virginia and Tyrel, (plus his lead role in the small James White), and it is lovely to see him stretch out as the protagonist in a film so odd. He is joined by the always entertaining Mia Wasikowska, and the charming Laia Costa, all of whom get their share of fascinating chances to shine and bend the audience’s minds.

The film follows Reed as he decides to take some time away from his wife (Costa) and child, so he can indulge his twisted murderous fantasies. He meticulously plans to lure and dispatch an unsuspecting prostitute, and in true jet-black humor fashion, Pesce has the camera follow Reed around the room he has rented as he walks through the steps of exactly how he will administer the necessary sedatives, do the deed, and dispose of the body. The clincher is, Pesce includes all the implied sound effects of the execution, and as Reed mimes the sawing, hacking, and gruesome handling of the various parts and bits, the squelches and drips are heard in full. This is a stylistic highlight, yet Piercing features many more sequences of filmmaking just as delightfully twisted. 

Wasikowska plays Jackie, the prostitute he eventually lures into his plan, but needless to say it does not go according to plan. The story twists and turns with gleeful insanity, with Reed and Jackie taking it in turns to torment the other with horrifying weapons and substances. It all spirals into hallucinogenic madness, perfectly contrasted against remarkable production design and music. Delirious grotesqueries are frequently performed on and around plush 70s interior design, while stupendously odd themes from classic Giallo films play above them. The film intermittently cuts to an uncanny miniature set meant to evoke the heights and depths of the New York City skyline, evoking a maze or a puzzle akin to the disorienting content of Reed’s story. 

It’s a trippy, entertaining, masterfully nightmarish romp, with an unlikely balance of class and cruelty, harrowing scenes and hilarious horror, and a hellishly sadomasochistic partnership for the ages in Abbott and Wasikowska’s characters. If you enjoy stylish craftiness and chills down the spine, plus some captivating costume work and musical dexterity, pick Piercing, and have fun with it.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 30 June)

Go to Piercing at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “Flammable Children” (25 June ’18)

“A delight, if you can stomach it.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

What a ride! Rarely does a ‘family comedy’ pack this much bite and savagery, yet complement them so well with side-splitting dialogue and visual bedlam to boot. But the latest from Stephen Elliott does not beat around the bush — it is not for the whole family, it is about the whole family, and how depraved, classless and outrageous three families become during a period of adult idiocy, adolescent recklessness, and young love in 1970s Wallaroo, Australia. The film is a delight, if you can stomach it, but so heinous at times that I would not blame you if you can’t.

Elliott’s film is variably titled Flammable Children and Swinging Safari, depending on its different releases, but in this reviewer’s opinion the former is far better suited to its tone. At the core of the ensemble piece are Jeff Marsh (Atticus Robb) and Melly Jones (Darcey Wilson), the only two kids in this massive group that seem to have any morals — they are sort of in love, sort of best friends, sort of just clinging onto each other to keep themselves sane, and due to a freak accident when they were young, involving a match and their synthetic 1970s clothing, they are known as the ‘flammable children.’ The grown-up Marsh narrates the story, which is mainly led and constantly derailed by the parents on the block, played with breathless energy by a delightful lineup of Aussie icons. Proving once again that he is no one trick pony, Guy Pearce delivers in an off-the-wall turn as sunburnt but jacked encyclopedia salesman Keith Hall, patriarch of the Hall family, married to Kaye Hall, played by none other than Kylie Minogue herself. The Jones family is led by evil-grin expert Julian McMahon and catlike Radha Mitchell as Jo, whose motto for their sizable clan, much to the chagrin of neighboring kids/victims, is “If they’re going to experiment, they should do it at home!” Completing the unholy trinity is the Marsh family itself, led by lovable Jeremy Sims as Bob and hilarious Asher Keddie as Gale. As they intertwine and spar intermittently over the course of Flammable Children, the film makes amusingly and dishearteningly clear that people like this just should not be parents. 

If you are wondering just why the film deserves its ribald reputation, observe a brief summary of the goings-on within these 97 minutes: there’s an attempted orgy, infidelity, aggressive urination (albeit after a jellyfish sting), animal abuse, child neglect, child smoking, child drinking, underage sex, violence, partial immolation, and a phenomenally gory finale that I will not dare spoil. Despite what you might be thinking, it’s all just a blast. The film is ruthless with its humour, be warned, and surely depraved, but it somehow avoids being outright tasteless and having a good time above all — or perhaps it is tasteless, but in all the right ways. When Rick tells his daughter to “go play in traffic,” or Gale holds down Kaye’s daughter to pee on her, or when the titular burning episode happens and the parents seem more interested in finishing their card game than putting out their kids, the horrifying misbehavior is somehow far funnier than it is upsetting.

All the insanity is helped along enormously by the natural ridiculousness of the 1970s setting. As Jeff’s early narration quips, a small Australian town like Wallarroo is a town that “time, and taste, forgot,” yet it seems to fit right in with the cacophonous consumerism and colorful grandeur of the 70s aesthetic, and the grainy film stock look that Elliott has used fits the remarkable amorality quite well somehow. Not to mention, the natural beauty of the Australian coast is presented in gorgeous vintage tones, and even the shots of the rotting blue whale carcass that washes up on the local beach are aesthetically pleasing. 

Overall, Flammable Children is good fun, and a pleasure to watch, even though it will probably repulse you at least once a minute. Its frenetic editing, the surprisingly beautiful photography, and the crackerjack insane performances make this possibly my Festival top choice for viewers at home — if you are looking for a funny, crazy, unique midnight watch, Elliott has the film for you. 

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 25 June)

Go to Flammable Children at EIFF

 

EIFF: “Solis” (25 June ’18)

“A commendable slice of cosmic panic.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Space survival films are a genre all of their own. From Danny Boyle’s surreal Sunshine, to Daniel Espinosa’s polarizing Life, to the best of the bunch, Alfonso Cuarón’s immaculate Gravity, the film world seems fascinated with throwing interstellar obstacles at terrified protagonists in the deep reaches of space. Carl Strathie’s Solis pays varying levels of homage to not only these films, with its white-knuckle situations and harrowing depictions of the vastness of the cosmos, but also to their headier predecessors, particularly the monumental daring of 2001: A Space Odyssey, through its notable use of imagery and colour. Ultimately, the artistry of Solis, though understandably subtle enough for some to  overlook, elevates the film from what could have been a somewhat staid space flick to a commendable slice of cosmic panic. Plus, a great deal of credit belongs to the captivating lead performance from cult-favorite Steven Ogg, finally given the chance to take the spotlight. 

Ogg, most well-known for his gloriously twisted embodiment of Grand Theft Auto V psycho Trevor Philips, is the sole visible performer in Solis, playing Troy Holloway, an employee of interstellar mining company Orbis. The action begins after a devastating accident onboard the main mining craft, as Holloway awakes in an escape pod hurtling through space, on a crash course towards the sun. While it may seem a tad overdramatic that he is literally going to smash into the sun, Solis keeps its visuals polished and oddly elegant.

The film’s first 2001 reference, of many, arrives as the sun itself is introduced in a manner very reminiscent of the opening chords of Kubrick’s masterpiece. From there, Strathie incorporates a method borrowed from that other space-epic, Star Wars, as Holloway’s minuscule vessel shoots into frame like the Rebel ship, subsequently pursued by a behemoth – in this case a massive cloud of space debris also on a course for the eponymous star. Solis continues its choice aesthetics through its use of colour to augment Holloway’s various attempts to better his situation — blue and orange populate most of the frame during the calmer, more dialogue-heavy interactions, while red creeps in from time to time to signal danger and mortality, to great effect.

As he makes contact with Commander Roberts aboard the main vessel, played by another talented cult favorite, Alice Lowe, Holloway’s fate is considered and reconsidered many times over, as both he and Roberts seem unsure whether his is a lost cause just yet or not. The building sense of doom is well established, again not only in its high order performances but its visual craft. I must specifically mention two particularly unnerving uses of imagery that elevated the experience: the first, a crack in the pod’s window, which progressively grows bigger and bigger, coming to ominously resemble a spider’s web by the climax, effectively reasserting the futility of Holloway’s attempts to escape fate. The second, the more subtle, is the continued return to images of eyes and of spheres resembling eyes, which both recall blips of humanity in the inhumane void, and the stark absence of an over-watching presence in such a vast emptiness. 

In fact, the aesthetics and plotting of Solis seem altogether consumed by the mercilessness of space, which, notably, means the film does not spend much time considering its intriguing potential for beauty, or mystery. This dourness becomes  overbearing at times, as the film seems only to take the most decidedly tragic turns at every corner. The filmmakers do not take their foot off the pedal for long enough to truly empathize with much, and even though Lowe delivers some compelling monologues, and Ogg legitimately carries a great deal of the film with his strenuous energy, its character beats come off as somewhat rushed – as a fan of Ogg’s, I found myself wishing he was given perhaps a few more chances to spread out as a performer.

Overall, however, Solis is a great way to spend 90 minutes, especially for fans of the space-is-scary approach, and/or fans of Mr. Ogg or Ms. Lowe. What’s more, Strathie must be commended for not only delivering a tale worth telling, with a stellar lead performance, but also for making his yarn as aesthetically captivating as this.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 25 June)

Go to Solis at EIFF

 

EIFF: “White Chamber” (22 June ’18)

“A mind-bending, satisfyingly twisty yarn. “

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Just when it was beginning to look like science fiction had passed the 72nd EIFF by, writer/director Paul Raschid’s White Chamber steps in to save the day for futureheads. Opening with the simple title card: “The United Kingdom… Soon,” the film continues down the near-future-commentary path from then on and delivers a mind-bending, satisfyingly twisty yarn. 

Shauna Macdonald turns in a layered performance as the film’s lead, a woman who wakes up in the eponymous, blindingly fluorescent white chamber, itself a barbaric torture device that can perform essentially any sadistic physical torment imaginable. Her captor, unidentifiable due to the muffled microphone, alternates between forcing her to endure extreme heat, unbearable cold, an electrified floor, and other revolting cruelties. Honestly, if the film had continued a second longer in this vein, this would be an abject failure of a story. The tortures are tasteless, the female victim a tired trope, and the faceless evil outside more irritatingly anonymous than intriguingly so.

But Raschid, as the film’s next few moments make clear, knows all this. I was lucky enough to catch a Q&A with him after the film, and he elaborated that the crude, done-to-death beats of the beginning scenes are intentionally unoriginal, because he wanted to twist the genre on its head in a fresh, new way. Without revealing his methods, suffice it to say that’s exactly what he accomplishes, with a great deal of wit and some deeply satisfying plotting. This is a film that is particularly hard to review in much detail, as most of the meat of the plot is one huge spoiler. So, without giving it all away, let me just recommend you give Raschid’s film a try for yourself.

In some regards, the film is relatively entry-level in its ultimate messaging and character work. Certain individuals experience arcs that are somewhat predictable, and certain scenes end exactly how you expected them to end ten minutes ago when they began. Numerous shots, as well, are bland and flat, an approach which, of course, reflects the feeling of the sterile chamber, and what lies beyond, but starts to feel too uninteresting a background. Thankfully, many of the assembled performers, especially the impressively talented Oded Fehr, make up for the film’s few shortcomings, and make White Chamber, though hard to watch at times, and possibly too clever for its own good in one or two moments, a compact sci-fi thriller worth exploring. For fans of tight, witty sci-fi escapades, this is not one to miss. 

 

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 22 June)

Go to White Chamber at the EIFF