Monsters on the Mexican border, comics vigilantes in York, lonesome cowboys in the West and George Lucas

After reporting on Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist earlier this week, here’s a round-up of some of the other genre-related, geek-friendly footage I managed to cram into my annual bash at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (it wasn’t all poncing around in a beret watching black and white films about human tragedy from Hungary, you know), with Indy flicks from North America, the UK (taking in alien monsters on the rampage, comics style vigilantes in York and an exploration of Star Wars fandom) and the live action version of the classic Lucky Luke comics from France

Crimefighters is a cracking wee comics-inspired black and white movie set in York, from Miles Watt (who is also involved in Zomblogalypse online), made on a shoestring budget and shot in a really nice, crisp, luminous black and white which makes the most of the small resources available to the film-makers. A trio of friends are attempting one of the most difficult endeavours of modern life – trying to avoid drinking for a month. Sipping soft drinks in the pub they start to notice that things in the fair city of York are getting worse – is anti-social behaviour (that great bugbear of modern Brit society that politicians so love to rant on about) really on the rise in the city or is it just because they’ve stopped drinking they’re getting a little paranoid?

An increase in fights and muggings does seem to be occurring and when the town’s CCTV cameras are deliberately targeted too it seems that it isn’t just random violent outbursts after closing time but part of someone’s diabolical plan. But why would someone want to cause more trouble in town? And with the authorities seemingly helpless isn’t it time to don the (home-made) masks and take the law into their own hands? Some of the dialogue and acting is a tad clunky; I’m not sure if that’s deliberate or not, but to be honest I got the impression that it was mostly by design, a nod to the often clichéd superhero comics which were part of the inspiration for the film and the foundation of the masked Crimefighters vigilantes. It may not be about to challenge Iron Man at the box office, but Crimefighters makes up for its minuscule budget with a good sense of fun, a knowing nod to its comics and movies inspirations and, more important than big budgets or sparkling dialogue re-writes, it’s got a lot of heart and I think that makes it a great Friday night movie for comics geeks. Crimefighters is getting a limited release this month and will be going around the UK via the Picturehouse chain of cinemas (starting in York today), so check their site for venue and screening date details and give them a bit of support if you can.

The People Versus George Lucas is Alexandre Philippe’s labour of love documentary, over two years in the making and involving a humongous amount of footage and then editing it down (apparently there are acres of scenes which didn’t make the final cut, including some famous contributors). Despite the adversarial title, this isn’t a Lucas-bashing movie; actually if anything it is a celebration of Star Wars and the huge part it’s played in the lives of legions of fans over the years. The film draws on archive footage, animations, photos, fan videos (and oh boy, has our Star Wars inspired a multitude of fan films!) and a slew of talking heads, from ordinary fans to some very famous ones, including David Brin, Francis Ford Coppola, Dave Prowse and Neil Gaiman among others (apparently Ray Harryhausen was also interviewed but didn’t make the final cut, which gives you an idea of the sheer amount of footage the film-makers had to try and edit in to the final cut).

The film dives into just why Star Wars, right from the start in ’77 (nostalgic sigh) became such a subject of passion for so many of us and how some aspects of the saga have had the opposite effect, infuriating fans – re-jigging the first trilogy years later and then not allowing the original cuts to be re-released for the many who want them (this was contrasted against a much younger Lucas who argues against the hideous 80s vogue for tinkering with classic movies), the still ongoing rumble over the ‘Han shot first’ in the reworked Episode IV and the contrast between the original trilogy and the later prequels. And oh yes, the Jar Jar thing (with due homage to Simon Pegg’s Spaced scene). Even when fans are venting their spleens about aspects of the series which annoy the hell out of them, though, it’s never mean – it’s the sort of emotion that can only be generated by people who really love the series. You can’t get that worked up if you don’t care, so even the criticism is a form of fan love. And before anyone outside of geekdom thinks typical geek behaviour to obsess over niggling points in something, it’s no different from the obsessive behaviour shown in any area where people have a passionate interest (take football for instance, where fans have memorised results from decades ago and still endlessly debate the minutiae of a play from 10 years back. It no different. Except we have cool lightsabres. And Slave Leias at conventions). Taking a balanced approach the film also discusses the creator’s right to make changes to their own works, whether it is what some fans want or not – Gaiman’s particularly good on this point, understanding both from the fan point of view but also from the successful creator perspective, where some fans really want you to continue doing what you did before.

The film also talks about how the enormous, unexpected success of Star Wars also, in a way, boxed in Lucas as a film-maker – as his friend and mentor Coppola put it, while he’s had huge success it also means he’s spent the rest of his life making Star Wars for the most part and we never got to see the other films that the man who made THX-1138 and American Graffiti might have made. I must confess I hadn’t considered that point before and I suppose it is the flipside of the cosmic level of success Star Wars enjoyed – it’s given Lucas fame, wealth and the love of millions, but did it also mean he never got to work on some of the other film projects the Lucas of the early 70s seemed eager to make? Overall though it’s a positive film about a series of amazing films that may drive us nuts sometimes but at the end of the day we still love deeply, laced with much affection (even when criticising) and often very, very funny. A great flick for Star Wars fans and indeed for any sort of fans – there’s a lot of ourselves to be recognised in the people in this film, because they’re us.

Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is another Indy movie and one where I didn’t know much more about it other than the blurb in the Film Fest programme – reporter is told by his boss to get his daughter back over the Mexican-US border. Problem being several years before a space probe sent to retrieve proof of organic life samples beyond Earth crash landed in northern Mexico and the lifeforms got free, mutated rapidly and spread, leaving the Zone, a quarantined area of alien monsters between most of Mexico and its border with America. Starting with some shaky night vision footage of an enormous monster attacking a city and being repelled by troops (in a scene that looks like CNN footage of combat from Baghdad, but with giant, tentacled aliens) Monsters straight away establishes an atmosphere of unease – talking to their taxi driver our protagonists ask how he can stay here when an attack like that can happen so randomly out of the Zone. Where else would I go, he asks. His life, his job, his family are all there. It’s another obvious echo of the problems faced by ordinary folks who happen to live in a city that’s become a trouble hotspot, be it insurgents in Iraq or Kabul or aliens in Mexico.

Photojournalist Kaulder is not happy at effectively being ordered to escort rich kid Samantha Wyden back over the border after her dad decides the attacks are getting too close. He’s there to cover them and looking for the one great shot that will make his name, seemingly less concerned with the human cost of what is happening than with how it will look in a news photo. But since Sam’s father owns his newspaper he doesn’t have much choice and as the infection leads to increasing disruption of transport links they have to take an increasingly off the beaten track route back home to the US, imbuing the monster flick with some of the road movie genre along the way. There are elements of other movies, from District 9 to Apocalypse Now in this belting, lo-fi movie (much of which was semi improvised along the way as they shot, for instance some of the armed troops you see aren’t all actors, some were the bodyguards provided for the crew by Mexican authorities, so they used them in their shots to work that small budget even further). Of course as they travel together Sam and Kaulder start to get to know one another more and the audience gets to know them right alongside. The effects are used sparingly – the budget would doubtless not stretch to too much of the monsters anyway but, like the much larger budgeted Cloverfield, Edwards knows that it is more about atmosphere and he deploys his monster shots sparsely but very effectively throughout (the director picked up the Moët New Directors Award at the Festival, in fact). Like District 9 this is a bit of a left field science fiction flick with a nice, Indy feel to it; one to watch for when it snags a general release.

(left to right: actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able with director Gareth Edwards and one of the Film Fest organisers on stage in the Filmhouse at the Edinburgh International Film Festival Q&A after Monsters, pic from my Flickr)

One of the last films I saw during my Festival break was the French live action movie of the classic European comic Lucky Luke, by Goscinny and Morris, which Wim talked about a few months back when it was released on the Continent. I remember a wee bit of the comics cowboy from my childhood reading, although he was never as big here as he was in France (although I am glad to say Cinebook are doing their best to make his books available again here in English), so I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially since live action movies based on other European all-ages comics like Asterix have been less than stellar. Boy, was I in for a very pleasant surprise – it wasn’t just okay, it wasn’t just good, it was bloody brilliant. Seriously. The style is somewhere between the comics (the sets are fabulous – the town is all weirdly shaped buildings, as if they were made from plans drawn without a ruler), Sergio Leone’s Westerns and a less adult version of Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (still one of the funniest movies ever in my book). And it’s funny. Oh god, but it’s funny. Three of us went to see it and we laughed pretty much throughout the entire film (and indeed on into the credits, which had some jokes – in French – peppered throughout the credits and an extra little scene that makes a nod to the fact that in this day and age the child-friendly cowboy hero can’t be seen to smoke, but does so with some panache).

There are some great touches – the live action leans towards the real world but retains enough of a cartoons sensibility to make it recognisably Lucky Luke (the cowboy takes a bath but of course he keeps his cowboy boots on; the terrified locals of the town hide from the bad guys who run it by always hiding in barrels). A lot of the humour is visual and slapstick in nature, with plenty to make the younger audience members laugh, but there are plenty of lines there just for the adults too (after all, many who will watch this are adults who grew up reading the comics many years ago and they want – and get – a film that pleases the kid in them and the adult). For example Luke no longer smokes, as we know, so now he has a blade of grass in his mouth, which leads to Jesse James trying to smoke it and exclaiming that this grass is too strong to be smoking, a joke going past they kids in the audience but hitting the adults (and along the way paying homage to the scene in Blazing Saddles where our heroes get high); a scene in the president’s carriage if so full of powerful men smoking cigars that there is a cloud inside the train. I’m not going to go on too much about it – trying to explain how funny some scenes are to someone who hasn’t seen them yet rarely works and besides I don’t want to spoil it. I will say it is creative, incredibly funny and it is stuffed full of wonderful little details – when it gets its DVD release it’s a film that you can easily re-watch and spot even more that you missed first time around. No details on a UK release yet, but I’d imagine now it has subtitles added prints will make their way onto the arthouse circuit in due course, and if you want a great laugh you should saddle up when Lucky Luke comes to town.

An animated Edinburgh: Sylvain Chomet at the Edinburgh Film Festival

I’ve spent the last week and a bit attending to one of my annual traditions: enjoying the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Among the many movies I managed to fit in there were, unsurprisingly a number from the comics and SF influenced end of films – mostly from the independent end of the pool – and, of course, some great animation. And since Wim’s been talking about The Illusionist, which has just opened in Europe and since it was the opening night gala movie let’s start with that.

Regular readers will know that I’m a huge admirer of Sylvain Chomet, who brought us the brilliant Bellevile Rendezvous, with its Scarfe-influenced characters and that I’ve been following the progress of his new animated feature as it came together in an Edinburgh studio. Rather appropriately, since much of the film is set in the Scottish capital. Adapted from an unused script by the great Jacques Tati (truly one of world’s cinema’s greats, easily up there in my book with Keaton), we follow Tatichef (another Tati reference), a tall, ungainly stage magician, struggling in 1950s Paris, so he takes himself off to London, only to find even less success there – old theatrical acts are out of fashion, the hip, young crowds of the post-war world want screaming rock’n’roll (cue some brilliant pastiche of 50s rock acts). Looking around for another gig to pay the rent an encounter with a (naturally drunk) Scotsman at a party leads to a booking in a wee village out on the islands off the west coast of Scotland, where he meets a young lass who, convinced he is a real magician, follows him to Edinburgh, where again Tatichef goes through a variety of gigs to try and get past in a world where his kind of act is now old-fashioned and no longer in demand.

As with Belleville Rendezvous, however, the story is only part of the enjoyment – the visual aspect is another, from the OTT comedy of the pelvis-swinging rock bands who steal Tatichef’s audience to a wonderfully drawn array of secondary characters (most notably the short ventriloquist). And then there are the landscapes; when the film moves to Scotland the artwork for the scenery is simply gorgeous (as indeed it is in real life), from the steam train thundering northwards to the boat to the islands, where of course it, being Scotland, is raining. And as the boat approaches the island and castle, in a scene paying homage to Tintin’s Scottish visit (although with a bit more visible under the kilt!), the rain stops and sunlight filters through gaps in the clouds creating the shimmering, golden dappled light effect anyone who’s been to Scotland has no doubt seen and it’s beautifully done.

The arrival in 50s Edinburgh is similarly beautiful and romantic, the steam train pulling into Waverley Station in its deep cutting between Old and New Town, landmarks surrounding it. As with Paris and New York in Belleville it isn’t an exact replica of the city but an idealised version, easily recognisable as Edinburgh (the Castle, the Scott Monument, Jenner’s, Balmoral, the rearing bulk of Arthur’s Seat) but a sort of magical, fantasy version of the city and again Chomet recreates the constantly changing quality of light we enjoy in Edinburgh, to quite beautiful effect. Okay, obviously I am totally biased here – being both an admirer of Chomet’s work and since I’m lucky enough to have Edinburgh as a home. If you know the city you will love the depiction of it that Chomet and his artists have created. And if you don’t then you will probably fall in love with it – as he did with the city – and want to see it for yourself; he’s talked about the changing quality of light in Scotland and how it inspired him, how it changes everything (it does, the same scenes are endlessly refreshed and changed a little) and there are some scenic passages which are clearly a love letter to the city.

(Sylvain Chomet on stage at the Festival Theatre with the EIFF’s Hannah McGill at the opening night gala screening of The Illusionist at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)

For all that beauty though and for the comedic elements – and they have given the cartoon Tatichef a wonderfully physical, very Jacques Tati feel – there is a strong melancholy running through The Illusionist. The young, naïve girl is lovely and obviously a little bit of company and sunshine in the older Tatichef’s life, but at the same time it serves to show that he is much older and that he has little to show for his lifetime of efforts but an act that no-one wants anymore, no home, no wife, no children. Her childlike belief that he actually is a real magician is touching, but it’s also an impossible image for Tatichef to live up to (and he tries so hard to make her happy) and something will have to give at some point. Throw in the complication of a young girl turning into a young woman and starting to notice boys (including a character who has more than a passing resemblance to a very young Sean Connery) and you begin to suspect that perhaps this won’t be as upbeat as Belleville. But over all that there’s the sheer beauty of the visuals – from the Flying Scotsman steaming in Waverley Station to a dizzying aerial spectacle of Edinburgh’s astonishing landmarks rotating below us. There’s laughter and sadness, often at the same time, some wonderful characters and above all some gorgeous artwork you can lose yourself in. You want to see it.

The Illusionist is out now in France and is expected in the autumn in the UK and winter in the US. Next from the Film Fest: geeking out with The People Versus George Lucas, the lonesome cowboy Lucky Luke delivers with both barrels, comics-style crime fighters in York, zombies in Athens and there are monsters on the Mexican border.

Animation at the Film Festival

Among the movies I was eager to see during my annual week off at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival were two animated features which we’ve mentioned on here before (regular readers will know of my fascination for all forms of animation) – the Australian stop-motion film Mary and Max (that rare thing, a feature length, independent  animated movie aimed at an older audience) and a more traditionally animated 2D offering from Ireland’s Cartoon Salon, The Secret of Kells, which was created primarily for a younger audience.

The Secret of Kells

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(an illuminated text version of Aisling and Brendan)

Regular readers will probably remember me mentioning this rather beautiful Irish animation a few times before on the blog – artist Cliodhna Lyons (Irish 24 hour comics day) first put me on to it last year as she had been involved with the Cartoon Salon in Kilkenny and the descriptions and artwork I saw had me hooked. It is an Irish-French-Belgian production and this and the graphic novel based on the film meant Kells also had a presence at this year’s prestigious Angouleme Festival, which Wim covered back in January. Drawing (no pun intended) inspiration from the fabled Book of Kells, one of the incomparably beautiful books in the history of world literature, The Secret of Kells offers up the tale of a young monk, Brendan, a novice at the monastery of Kells where his uncle is the stern, towering, grim-face abbot.

It is an evil time for many – Rome is but a distant memory and the Dark Ages have fallen across much of Europe. One of the lights in the long, dark night comes from the early church and most especially in the monastery’s preservation and dissemination of learning and the dim, early days before nations like Ireland and Scotland were actually nations, but were slowly being forged in a cauldron of oral myth, the unique Celtic brand of Christianity, small kingdoms becoming larger kingdoms and the testing by fire of brutal events like the seemingly endless invasions of the Norsemen – the Vikings. Off the Western coast of Scotland, among the many islands which scatter there though the seas lies the spiritual home of early Scottish Christianity and it is from here that Brother Aidan must flee as the Viking raiders sack this sacred site and slaughter or enslave the holy men who live there, destroying or ransacking everything within. Aidan flees with a remarkable book, the Book of Iona, still to be completed after many long decades of patient illumination by many gifted, scholarly monks. Bringing it to Kells he hopes to complete it with the help of brothers in the scriptorium there, but the abbot has lost patience with such things, being totally obsessed with building walls and defences against the inevitable Norse assault he knows will come on Kells and the monks and many villagers who have fled there for protection. He actively discourages his young nephew from helping Aidan, who, now finding his old hands to unsteady for the job, seeks a gifted replacement to finish the book.

Disobeying his uncle Brendan steals into the forest, a dark place, home to strange creatures from Irish folklore, dark wolves, standing stones, strange caves, home to mythical beings. And a forest sprite in the form of a young girl (Aisling), who is suspicious at first but soon warms to Brendan until the two become close friends.

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The film is beautifully animated – the artwork is often simply gorgeous, as befits a work inspired by one of the most beautiful cultural treasures in the world. Sometimes the characters appear to be walking in an odd way compared to the background and it felt to me that this was a deliberate style adopted by the animators; its as if the characters are flat and walking across a flat background, which seems appropriate to the art style of the period, long before the more normal (to us) adoption of perspective in Renaissance art much later. Some scenes are also broken into split screens, little triptychs which recall the lovely, large header illustrations common in many illuminated books of the period, while other scenes again draw directly for their design on the unique form of illuminated texts which the Celtic school of Christianity created, people, animals, beautiful plants, flowing script and twisting, interwoven lines and knots combining into something so beautiful it almost makes you cry (so beautiful its mere sight is supposed to blind sinners as Brendan says), while other touches are small and subtle, such as the way the dappled light sparkles in the forest as the sun comes through the leaves.

Contrasted against this the Norsemen are depicted mostly in shadows, dark black and blood red outlines of hulking figures, swords and horns, recalling the demon from Fantasia (for which the great Bela Lugosi posed for the Disney animators, long before motion capture). Their acts, while never shown in detail, are brutal, dark, terrifying – for a film aimed primarily at younger viewers possibly a bit scary, but then they should be and I think its good that the animators don’t hide the horrible brutality of the period, especially as it makes the book stand out all the more. Too late the abbot will realise that his endless obsession with defences will still not halt the tide of Viking onslaught and that while they are all transient beings the book is more important then any of them or the abbey itself; the book is a symbol of the light, a beacon to shine a path out of the Dark Ages and to touch the souls of men and women for eternity (as it still does to this day). But only if Brendan and Aidan, with help from Aisling and a rather smart cat can save this remarkable work of art.

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(the demonic Norsemen attack)

Its an utterly beautiful film – there’s a lovely adventure and a tale of friendship, of learned responsibilities, of what is most important, of coming of age, of saving what you can against the ages, served with a helping of folklore and fantasy, some humour and some wonderful moments of wonder that will have the eyes of child audiences open wide and the eyes of the adults too, all served up with some beautiful, traditional animation, which moves from the reasonably simple to the gorgeously elaborate scenes directly inspired by the Book of Kells. And as a bonus hopefully it will inspire kids to learn more about our history and our shared culture. Sadly there is still no news on a general UK release as yet, so at the moment you will need to watch out for it at film festivals. Which is a huge hint to any film distributors out there – this is beautiful, enchanting adventure with soul and culture and it needs to be seen by more people (and parents its a perfect one to take your kids to). And its not just animation lovers like me – Secret of Kells took the much vaunted Standard Life Audience Choice Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival – that’s an award cast by actual audience members as they leave the cinema, not an award given by critics, so obviously the audiences here loved it too; you can find out more on the official movie site here and director Tomm Moore’s blog.

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(director Tomm Moore – pictured centre – at the UK premiere during the Edinburgh Film Festival, from my Flickr stream)

Mary and Max

Also at the Film Festival I was lucky enough to catch another animated film I have been eager to see for months, Mary and Max. The first Australian film every picked to open the prestigious Sundance Festival and also the first animated film to do so (which is a strong indicator of how good it is, as is its award at Annecy), its one of those movies which has been gathering impressive word of mouth on the international festival circuit, although like all indy films that is only half the struggle – getting general releases in various countries is another matter and good showings at film festivals is part of that hard slog of getting the film seen by a wider audience (a task made harder by the fact its an animated movie made for adults – most film companies won‘t know how to market such a thing). And does Mary and Max deserve to be seen by that wider audience? Oh yes, without a doubt yes.

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(Max Jerry Horowitz from Mary and Max)

This lovely, stop-motion tale is essentially a story of two damaged, lonely souls who find a remarkable connection across the world. Young Mary is a little girl in suburban Australia, with no friends at school, a funny looking face that gets made fun of, a father who spends most of his time on his hobby of taxidermy (using roadkill for subject matter) and a mother in hair rollers, hideous glasses and constant alcoholic and smoking fugue. It’s a lonely upbringing and Mary escapes into imagination and her love of chocolate and the animated show Nibblets. One day while her mother shoplifts items from the local post office Mary leafs through an international phone book, wondering at the ‘strange’ names in an American directory. On an impulse she decides to take down the details of one random name and write him a letter to ask about life in America.

Max is a middle-aged, obese Jewish man living in 70s New York, also a lonely, damaged soul (as we find out later, he has Asperger’s, which is one reason he has difficulty in relating to people until Mary writes to him), flitting between a succession of jobs, a number of fish (which keep dying and being replaced) and trips to Overeater’s Anonymous which are rather defeated by his love of chocolate. He is quite surprised to receive Mary’s letter, complete with some samples of chocolates from Australia and very soon they are swapping letters, chocolates and little bits of their isolated lives to something neither had before – a friend. It’s at this point that the situation could be seen as straying into potential landmine territory – lonely young girl corresponding with isolated, lonely older man? You can almost imagine a red-top tabloid screaming headline now. But it isn’t like that. Somehow these two damaged souls have found what they needed, a friend, and an unlikely relationship blossoms before, inevitably, hitting some more stormy seas, not least when a more grown up Mary, now at college, studies psychology and uses Max as her main subject.

The film doesn’t try to hide the shortcomings of the characters any more than it tries to wallow in sentiment – it simply presents them and the many little facets of growing up and life that everyone can identify with, from finding out the illicit pleasures as a child of sneaking a tin of sweetened condensed milk to the shattering implications of a dear friendship being damaged (and also presents Aspergers with some sensitive understanding). It’s often funny, sometimes quite sad, but even when sad it is that beautiful kind of sadness that draws you in. The animation is all done in stop-motion and looks wonderful. I have no problem with CG animation but there is something I always find fascinating about stop-motion, the fact that, as the producer (who did a Q&A after the screening) remarked, everything you see on the screen was there, it was all designed, built and then painstakingly moved by hand, frame by frame; its all real, every item you see on screen was touched by a person putting life into it.

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(Mary Daisy Dinkle wrapping up another package for her pen friend)

The voice talent boasts Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both agreeing to work for a fraction of their normal movie fees simply for the love of it (another indicator of how good this film is) and the narration comes from none other than the great Barry Humphries, who apparently they were huge fans of and terrified to meet, but he was charming and agreed to do it, even if he noticed Mary’s mother had a slight touch of the Dame Edna about her. It’s rare to see independent animation features and even rarer to see one aimed at an adult audience (although I think it’s also quite suitable for a YA audience too). There’s more than a touch of the Edward Gorey (or his modern heir, Tim Burton) to some of the style and humour, not so much Gothic but in the dark humour that life often throws up. What can I say except I absolutely loved it and, like the Secret of Kells, I hope that some film distributors pick it up and give it a proper general release here. Meantime, if you see it on the programme of a film festival near you, take my tip and go and see it.