To mangle an old adage: life is what gets in the way of watching films. So while at the Glasgow Film Festival, it's time to cram as many movies as possible into 48 hours. Here's the lowdown on what we saw...
Given Glasgow's rich musical heritage, it's unsurprising that music is a central part of its film festival (we've already covered the big screen comeback of Ziggy Stardust). The big Saturday evening draw is Sing Street, the latest music-based drama from Once director John Carney. Although Once was as perfect a marriage of tentative romance and folky tuneage as you could wish for, his previous film Begin Again extended Once's cheesier excesses into a schmaltzy turd fondue.
Despite repeating almost the exact same narrative formula as his previous two films, Sing Street is definitely a return to form. Its big crowd-pleasing jokes are broad in appeal - yes, many elements of 80s pop are now ridiculous - if hardly nuanced or subtle in style. It runs out of steam when the film's fictional band moves from pastiching The Cure and Duran Duran to playing the kind of anodyne rock 'n' roll that's about as dangerous as a comfort blanket, but it's an enjoyable and accessible ride.
At the other end of the scale, Urban Hymn focuses on a residental care worker's attempt to make music a motivational factor in changing the life of troubled teenager and Etta James fan Jamie. Its plotting is far more predictable than its sonics (one minute grime, the next a community choir), but its unflinching depictions of violence and disharmonious friendships makes for a genuinely moving experience.
Don Cheadle is a convincing Miles Davis in the Miles Ahead biopic, but that's about the extent of the successes of his directorial debut. Much of the story revolves around Miles Davis and a Rolling Stone journalist (Ewan McGregor) in their pursuit of a master recording (it somehow feels simultaneously like a MacGuffin and a red herring) which has ended up in the unwelcome clutches of his record company. As a tale of a fictional eccentric musician Miles Ahead would've been passable, but with gunfights and car chases you're left wondering how, why and when Miles Davis ended up in an episode of Starsky and Hutch.
That leftfield approach to the biopic works much better in the Experimenter, which is based upon Dr. Stanley Milgram and his infamous psychological experiments regarding authority and obedience. Taking a work-equals-life approach to its subject, it tells a story that's professionally rather than personally based. Director Michael Almereyda douses a surrealistic touch on proceedings which results in a film akin to Charlie Kaufman helming a 98 minute Psychology For Beginners course.
Goodbye Mommy escalates such studies to the realm of psychological horror despite it being a very different film to what its insanely popular trailer suggested. Despite possessing a pair of creepy twins it's less The Shining and more like a Haneke slowburner which threatens to play out like Dogtooth in reverse. Set in a modernistic, shadowy equivalent to a haunted house, the twins' relationship with their mother escalates in increasingly odd directions. The “twist” won't surprise anyone, but the foreboding atmosphere and spiralling questions of identity make it more than worthwhile.
An otherworldy sci-fi / body horror set in an anonymous Mediterranean locale, Lucile Hadihalilovi's Évolution claims the most unique vision of our visit. The island is population solely by boys and young women, the latter of whom seem to spend most of their time at a curiously underpopulated hospital watching footage of Caeserian sections. Drama and dialogue most take a backseat as this impressionist haze of a tale stealthily reveals its alternative universe, making for a film that's both painfully slow and wondrously intelligent.
North Korea provides a society that's almost as strange but disturbingly entirely real in The Propaganda Game. It feels as if Álvaro Longoria set out to discover the real North Korea for himself, only to find that the nation's propagandist control is fought against with similar trickery by the international community. Spaniard Alejandro Cao de Benós - the Special Delegate of North Korea's Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries - is one of the strangest elements of what would be an hilarious comedy of cultural misunderstandings if it wasn't for the accompanying human suffering. It's a fascinating watch for anyone with a passing interest in this oddball state: a game of Chinese whispers with 24 million innocent victims.
The victims in Land And Shade are a family reliant upon Colombia's exploitative sugar cane industry. The father is suffering from a chronic lung disease, presumably caused by the airborne ashes that linger after the fields are burned, which forces the mother to work to support her son, despite also have his grandmother and returning grandfather for support. It's slow, contemplative cinema with a painterly approach to visual compostion but the horror is their lack of power over their own increasing desperate existence.
First world problems are equally as devastating in the gruelling James White. Christopher Abbott excels as the bar-brawlin', womanising title-character but his man-child existence is forced to evolve at a lightning pace when his mother (Cynthia Nixon) is rediagnosed with cancer. The hedonism continues as a coping method: White's mental state declines almost as rapidly as his mother's health. It's a painfully intimate and harrowing tale, with a truly exceptional scene in which White narrates a happier future during his mother's lowest ebb.
It's Joachim Trier's Louder Than Bombs which is the leader of the pack. His first English-language movie after the excellent one-two of Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, Louder Than Bombs is an elegant visual tapestry of the evolving misperceptions, miscommunications and changing interpretations of memory within a family unit after the death of the matriarch. Thematically it's busy, also tackling everything from gaming as a form of escapism to the social hierarchy of the American high school, but it all interlinks expertly. Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert and Jesse Eisenberg provide the experience, but relative newcomer Devin Druid steals the show as a teenager confused by the adults' struggle to do the right thing.
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Words: Ben Hopkins