LFF 2016, Uncategorized

BFI London Film Festival – Highlights.

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Granted, this piece is almost a month late – in fact I think it’s almost one month to the day when I started writing it – but it’s been a pretty busy time for me lately.

This year’s BFI London Film Festival was one of the biggest and best ever. Here I’ll be offering an overview of my favourite movies from my time there, though if you want to read a little more about the festival itself and see the full selection, head over to the BFI website.

London Film Festival has typically tended to be a good barometer of the year’s best films and 2016 has been no exception – a number of the films screened will be deservedly gracing numerous end of year lists, and it also showcases the main contenders for awards season next January and February. Unfortunately though I wasn’t able to see all of them; this isn’t my full time job after all. What I’m going to give you here are 15 films I think deserve special mention out of the selection of screenings I was able to attend while there.

Screenings that I missed and are therefore not featured here, but films that will inevitably feature in awards season, included: Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (expected in the UK early next year), Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams (which I have since seen and will review separately), Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom with David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike (opening night gala), and Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (Brie Larson looks excellent in it and will be a Best Supporting Actress nominee for sure – closing night gala).

So, not including the above four, here are 15 of the best from this year’s BFI London Film Festival:

15. Le Mechanique de L’Ombre (Scribe)

A French espionage thriller that takes the genre in an unexpected direction, feeling fresh and original because of it. The story of Monsieur Duval, a depressive alcoholic with little else to distinguish him from the average middle class office clerk, who loses his job and is forced to take on work transcribing secret telephone conversations on behalf of a shady employer. When he seemingly overhears a murder on one of the conversations, Duval finds himself getting sucked deeper into a mysterious plot despite his unassuming nature… This one likely won’t be getting much of a wide release in the UK, but it’s worth checking out on DVD or Blu-ray. I won’t claim Scribe is anything spectacular, but it’s one of the more entertaining thrillers I’ve watched in recent times.

14. Magnus

A cool, crisp documentary on the life and sharp rise of Norwegian chess prodigy and current chess world champion Magnus Carlsen; as a big fan of the game and of Carlsen’s unpredictable, ‘intuition’-based playing style, this one appealed to me straight away.

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At a brief 75 minutes, the film never drags and in fact may be considered too short by some. But for me that length is perfect. Carlsen himself is a reserved figure, an unashamed introvert who has no problem being rude in social situations to read about chess and further his mastery of the game. Often, in fact, he’ll seem lost in the space of his mind, his ‘own world’ – and we see how lonely a place it can be as well, with even the family and friends who he personally values so much unable to comprehend what goes on in his head. A bite-size gem of a movie.

13. Graduation

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu shared Best Director at Cannes this year for this family drama focusing on the socio-political environment of Romania. It also provides an insightful look into parenting and the notion of how far one is willing to bend their integrity in order to give their children the best life possible (which, in this case, is ‘escaping’ Romania via a scholarship to Cambridge). A typically masterful European movie made with skillful insightfulness, and unbridled honesty pertaining to the often-curious patterns observed in human behaviour.

12. Goldstone

Sequel to 2013’s Mystery Road (one of the more underrated movies of the past few years – check it out), Goldstone sees the return of aboriginal detective Jay Swan as he attempts to solve a missing persons case that inevitably turns out to be linked to a larger plot.

This is a smart sequel, possibly an even smarter movie than its predecessor. It doesn’t simply pick up where Mystery Road left off; rather, Jay Swan has changed considerably as a character due to certain things that have happened in his life since his last outing. The film doesn’t rush into revealing these details too quickly, instead settling into a groove dealing with this movie’s independent storyline, which also means anyone who’s never seen the first movie can enjoy this film without needing to. For those who have seen its predecessor, trying to work out what’s changed with this central character – you may not recognise him to begin with, such has been his change – adds an extra element of intrigue.

Otherwise, Goldstone deals with themes like human trafficking, capitalism, and aboriginal natives being driven off their land by rich white men for the sake of (what else?) expansion and profit. When all’s said and done, this film is probably deserving of a higher place on the list, if it weren’t for the emotional connection I had with certain others to come.

11. Queen of Katwe

Just released widely in UK cinemas, Queen of Katwe is set to be, I hope, Disney’s biggest hit of 2016.

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Based on the true story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, Queen of Katwe is another film that first jumped out at me because of its subject matter. It turned out to be much more than just another movie about chess, though. Yes it has the feel-good vibes one would expect from a movie of this nature; yes, it is undoubtedly one for the entire family to enjoy (and probably my favourite ‘family movie’ of the year). Having said that, there’s still a ‘rare’ quality about this film; considering it’s a full-scale Hollywood Disney movie set in Uganda, with an exclusively black cast.

I shouldn’t say “if there’s only one film you see this week, make it this one” in a week when I, Daniel Blake is also released, but I certainly want to at this moment.

10. Frantz

Francois Ozon has made some of my favourite films over the past few years – In the House and The New Girlfriend were two of the best movies of 2012 and 2014 respectively.

Frantz is another departure for the talented director; filmed predominantly in black and white, it’s an unconventional romance set in France in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Uniquely the character of Frantz himself only appears in flashbacks, the story revolving around a German man who knew him during the war travelling to France to meet his family. French-German relations of the time period are examined from both sides, as the film begins in France from the perspective of a German, then ends in Germany from the perspective of a French character. Colour is used sparingly in the film, but is effective when a transition takes place. This is another great outing from Ozon.

9. Paterson

Adam Driver hasn’t been short of attention in Hollywood since starring as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s found a role here that would define him, if he hadn’t already played one that inevitably will instead.

He plays title character Paterson in this film, a poet who lives in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. A bus driver by day (a trade that allows him to overhear some interesting conversations as the hours tick away), Paterson and his wife live a rather idyllic yet simple existence that feels right out of the American blue-collar storybook. In the evenings and at weekends, Paterson works on his poetry, which, while somewhat unspectacular, helps make him increasingly endearing as the film goes on. We end up connecting closely with this character despite his otherwise uninteresting lifestyle.

His dog in this film also gives an admirable performance; having won the Palm Dog award at Cannes for ‘best performance by a canine’. Paterson is due for its UK release in late November and may well be one I revisit soon.

8. Ma’ Rosa

A strong contender to pop up in the ‘Best foreign language film’ category as an entry for the Philippines, Ma’ Rosa is a stark portrayal of the struggle people have with everyday poverty. Central character Rosa is a mother and wife who casually sells hardcore drugs from her corner shop – out of necessity to ‘get by’. She comes across like a mother to the small, intimate surrounding community and so magnetic is lead actress Jaclyn Jose’s performance (for which she won Best Actress at Cannes) that at no point can you bring yourself to judge her from a moral high ground. Set during rainy season in the Philippines, the film has a kind of eccentric beauty about it, though a good portion of it you spend inside a police station over the course of a night in which police corruption is also exposed. Look out for this one next year.

7. Arrival

It seems inevitable that Denis Villeneuve is set to become this generations Spielberg, Kubrick and/ or Ridley Scott all rolled into one. His previous work has shown similarities to them – he’s set to inherent the Blade Runner franchise with his next project – and Arrival feels like the sci-fi Spielberg and Kubrick would have made if they had worked on one together (A.I. doesn’t count).

Arrival isn’t my favourite Villeneuve movie; that mantle still belongs to the lesser-known Enemy, and I admittedly preferred Sicario to it as well, personally. But let that not take away from the overall quality of this film. It is one of the best, and one of the smartest of 2016. It also has a global theme about different countries and nationalities working together to avoid catastrophe, which should resonate particularly well with people when it is released this week considering our current socio-political climate.

Amy Adams is set to be a frontrunner at the Oscars for her performance in Arrival.
Amy Adams is set to be a frontrunner at the Oscars for her performance in Arrival.

6. The Handmaiden

Korean director Park Chan-wook (of Oldboy fame) returns with a film containing scenes that may rival Blue is the Warmest Colour in their raw, visceral portrayal of lesbian sex.

Obviously depending on your point of view, that could make or break the experience. But The Handmaiden really isn’t about that; rather it’s a winding love story that follows anything but the traditional narrative path, in which characters and their relationships are constantly in question. At least two major twists take place that change your perspective on what came before, giving the film an “I have to see that again” effect. It’s one of the best films of the year, without a doubt. It may even be Park Chan-wook’s best film to date.

5. Christine

Christine is set during a time (the early 1970s) when knowledge of mental health in America was still at an alarmingly primitive stage. The result is an experience that is at once sad and tragic, while you’ll also breath a sigh of relief that we no longer live in such times. Rebecca Hall gives the performance of her career as news anchor and journalist Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself live on air in 1974. The footage hasn’t been available anywhere – presumed destroyed – for some time, resulting in the story becoming somewhat of a modern myth; but it did actually happen, and at the time was as shocking as the portrayal here of elements leading up to the event. Christine herself was suffering from something; whether it was bipolar or a similar disorder is unclear, as though it is heavily hinted at, such diagnoses were non-existent at that time. This film is essentially the story of a woman who battles with demons yet is ultimately unable to defeat them. There was no happy ending for Christine Chubbuck, but thankfully nowadays there is for many who suffer as she did.

4. Chasing Asylum

An eye-opening look at Australia’s rather brutal anti-immigration policies in recent years; a documentary for which its makers took a genuine risk of two years in prison to release. Seeing its content, it’s not hard to work out why.

Honestly, this is a film that I believe everyone needs to see. Not a comfortable experience, especially considering the building anti-immigration sentiment in our own country, but you owe it to yourself to check out this documentary, regardless of the opinion you bring in or take out of it. This kind of thing is what can prevent mass stupidity in our own population and/ or government.

3. Personal Shopper

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Kristen Stewart continues to defy critics who have lamented her acting ability by giving one of the best performances of the year in Personal Shopper – a different kind of ghost story in that it’s not part of the horror genre. There are a couple of potentially frightening scenes for sure, though they will intrigue rather than unsettle you. In general that’s what this film does; set out to intrigue its audience rather than spoon-feed them some cheap popcorn thrills. Stewart plays a young woman whose brother is recently deceased, and whom she believes is attempting to contact her from ‘the other side’. She and her brother were previously psychics, supposedly able to communicate with the dead, though Stewart’s character brings a healthy, refreshing skepticism to the story, preventing the whole thing from becoming eye-rollingly cheesy. Instead there’s an understated quality running throughout this film, right up to an ambiguous ending, that I loved. Others may feel differently depending on taste, but it’s one of the most original movies I’ve seen this year.

2. My Life as a Courgette

Forget what anyone else says – this is the best animated film of 2016. A French-Swiss stop motion that comes in at a compact 67 minutes, it’s the story of a little boy who is sent to an orphanage after the accidental death of his alcoholic mother, where he meets a group of other small children who’ve all lost their parents in various tragic circumstances. Like any top quality animated movie (indeed as 2015’s Inside Out also did very well), it grants the respect to children that they’re able to ‘handle’ serious issues such as the death of loved ones, loneliness, love, and there’s even subtle – yet entirely innocent – references to sex. It’s equally hilarious and incredibly sad. The stop motion on display is also an excellent work of art. Nominated as the Swiss entry for Best foreign language film, I’ll be shocked if this isn’t one of the favourites to pick up that award in February.

1. George Best: All By Himself

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Admittedly this is a somewhat sentimental choice – I’m allowed one occasionally! – but George Best: All By Himself is also one of the most insightful documentaries I’ve seen in recent years. It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything new about one of the world’s best footballers, but it shares an emotional, engaging account of the boy from East Belfast who became football’s first celebrity superstar in the midst of the ‘swinging sixties’ in Britain, and you’ll likely come away from it feeling you know him better as a person than before.

I emphasise that because in recent years it feels like people don’t really look at Best as a normal person – rather, as a flawed genius who ruined his career on the football field because of his obsessive love of alcohol. And that he certainly was – but there was more to the man. All By Himself showcases a boy no different from any of us, who became swept up in a celebrity culture that the football world itself was unprepared for, and one in which he was unable to find any guidance or help, being the first to have experienced it. Growing up in East Belfast myself, this documentary obviously resonated with me, and while I wouldn’t hold any objective claim to it being the best film overall, it was my most memorable experience of this year’s festival.

Now I had been planning to write more in-depth reviews for some of the films here; as we’re at the stage where a few of them are being released widely – Arrival this week, and Paterson coming up as well – I’m instead going to post larger reviews of those films as they come. A notable exception from the above is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which I did see at the festival, and I did point out beforehand as a potential contender for Best Picture at the Oscars… Well I’ve changed my mind on that and will be writing a longer review in this case, as I think this film and the context surrounding its production raises some interesting issues worth a larger discussion.

Film reviews

The Childhood of a Leader.

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This is a curious one. The Childhood of a Leader chronicles events in the life of a child destined to become a fascist dictator. Growing up in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in WW1 and partly revolving around the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, parallels to Hitler’s rise are obvious. It is clear, however, that this child is not Hitler and the film shouldn’t be thought of as biographical pertaining to any one particular fascist leader; rather, it is like an amalgamation of them.

It is nonetheless fascinating to see a story told from this perspective; a character study as such, showing the elements that mix in this child’s life to help form what he will become. Can we blame nature or nurture? Could his parents and those around him have affected his life differently, or was his future inevitable due to his inherent ego and controlling personality (both of which we see form during the film)?

This movie does not necessarily attempt to answer those questions, but it does give us food for thought on the issue. Newcomer Tom Sweet plays ‘the boy’, named Prescott, and this kid is good; one of the film’s main strengths, as his onscreen presence helps communicate a sense of foreboding unease. He always comes across as naturally charismatic and charming, with an unnerving confidence and piercing stare to go with it.

Prescott shows impressive intelligence and alarming insightfulness for a boy his age; something he does not entirely share with either of his parents, one of whom is a caring mother wanting to be her son’s main influence, the other an overbearing father too busy and/ or unwilling to spend time with his son. The former is played by French actress Bérénice Bejo, best known for her role as Peppy Miller in The Artist (2011), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Irish actor Liam Cunningham, whom many people may recognise from Game of Thrones, plays Prescott’s father.

One of the most immediately striking things about the film is its score by Scott Walker. Fast, aggressive, and intimidating, this soundtrack will be one of your lasting memories of the experience, as it captures the stark urgency and dread of what awaits in Prescott’s future. Though the film’s described as a ‘historical mystery drama’, one would be forgiven for thinking its score more in line with horror; and fittingly so, as we’re dealing with a horrific – if not overtly – overall theme.

Subtly touched upon, in one scene in particular, is the treatment of Germany in the immediate aftermath of WW1. It’s hinted that this harsh, bordering on arrogant tone from representatives of the rest of Europe (one of whom is Prescott’s father) towards their defeated foe influenced what Prescott was to become; a parallel to Hitler’s rise and the factors that led to WW2.

Debut director Brady Corbet has appeared as an actor in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (the 2007 version) and a selection of other films over the past decade, as well as appearing in American TV shows such as 24 and Law & Order; so this is an experienced hand in front of the camera if not behind it. For a first feature, The Childhood of a Leader is certainly an impressive feat; winning Best Debut and Best Director at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Rounding out the core cast is Stacy Martin, a young actress most recently seen in Tale of Tales, whose stock has been gradually rising since appearing alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac; and Robert Pattinson, whose role here is a considerable departure from previous projects. Pattinson, while initially seeming only a supporting actor with not much to do, has a vital role in the film’s final scene that justifies his ‘big name’ presence.

In the end this film may bring accusations of pretentiousness – it does not explain everything nor wrap up the narrative with a neat resolution – but the ideas that Corbet communicates are something to be admired. These and a thumping, unforgettable soundtrack carry The Childhood of a Leader along at a good pace. Ultimately, it’s hard not to appreciate the experience.

8 / 10

Film reviews

The Commune.

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Fresh off last year’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg somewhat returns to his roots with The Commune.

This is a guy who, along with Lars von Trier, co-founded the Dogme 95 movement that aimed to simplify the rules of film production and take back creative control from movie studios. The Commune feels like it would fit right in at the peak of the movement in the late 90’s.

It has a simple premise: a small family, living in a house larger than they can manage, decides to start interviewing people to come and live with them in what will become a ‘commune’.

What begins as a light-hearted suggestion soon becomes a way of life, with numerous eccentric characters joining them. How the group interacts starts equally light-hearted, entertaining and hilarious, but as they become closer, literally forming one big family, we see emotions running high.

At the centre of it all are the original occupants; husband Erik and wife Anna, played by Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm respectively, along with daughter Freja (Martha Hansen). We see early on that the couple isn’t entirely in sync; moving others into the house is originally Anna’s idea, while Erik instead desires to be closer to his wife, something that becomes more difficult when the house is full. They grow more distant, and the journey their respective characters go on over the course of the movie is fascinating in itself. Dyrholm deservedly won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at Berlin Film Festival for her performance as Anna, who gradually unravels as the film goes on.

The group dynamic is adeptly used to examine social issues; the unique living arrangement gradually highlighting both how easy it is to lose individuality and conversely how frustrating it can be to pursue personal desires in a setting where they may not be accepted. How much are people willing to put up with to accommodate others? How to convey brutal honesty when so many ears are listening? These are questions posed by Vinterberg, clearly intended to have a wider reach than the walls of the house in which they originate, and the film is an enjoyable ride in such experienced hands. You can often tell the cast is having as much fun as we are.

The Commune was considered (though ultimately not selected) for Danish submission to the Best Foreign Language category at the Oscars – the third time one of Vinterberg’s films has been in contention after Festen/ The Celebration (1998; also wasn’t nominated) and The Hunt (2012; made the final selection). Fans of the director or anyone looking to enjoy one of the more eccentric European movies of the year won’t be disappointed.

8 / 10

Film reviews

Departure.

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Departure (directed by Andrew Steggall) is at times intense, at times understated, but always a pleasure to watch. That’s thanks mainly to its three central leads, played by Juliet Stevenson (Beatrice), Alex Lowther (her son Elliot) and breakout French actor Phenix Brossard (Clement). Their interaction drives this British drama, at the centre of which are themes of alienation within the family unit and what it means to ‘love’.

Indeed the three characters find themselves almost locked in a curious love triangle that never quite blossoms. While Elliot is only starting to discover his sexual identity, his mother feels isolated and ignored by his often absent father (who has a role to play in the latter part of the film). As Clement enters into their situation, they find someone else on whom to focus their attention.

There’s a strangely comforting quality to Departure’s cinematography; it’s set in the French countryside, at Beatrice and Elliot’s summer holiday home. They’re preparing to sell the house and spend much of the movie in the midst of packing; this act itself becoming a source of tension as the story unfolds.

The film does a great job of contrasting what would usually be seen as a safe haven – the family home – with the fear of seeing it inevitably break up, and it’s fascinating to see the different ways in which each character reacts.

Overall Departure may not be the flashiest film to appear in cinemas in 2016, but its insight into what leads to relationship breakdowns, and an honest approach to sexuality, make it an intriguing one worth seeking out.

7 / 10

Uncategorized

Let’s complain about politics online.

What’s my problem with politics now?

Just look at the power struggles in the Conservative party… Was this referendum all about their little leadership contest? Apparently David Cameron, Boris Johnson, George Osborne and Michael Gove were best friends during their days at Oxford and it seems now their ‘friendly’ rivalries have spilled over to become the epicentre of a pivotal point in the UK’s history. The unfolding (melo-)drama really is like something out of a Shakespeare play. Haven’t we established already how out of touch these guys are with the needs of ordinary people?

Who has any idea where we’re going from here? When will Article 50 be triggered? Will it be triggered? Or, a question I believe not yet settled: should it be triggered?

The referendum may have answered the question of whether the majority (however narrow) of the British public want it to be – and I wouldn’t argue with the outcome – but that is not the same question.

Is it really so preposterous, if we take all the point scoring and nitpicking out of this, to suggest a ‘leave’ vote doesn’t automatically settle the issue once and for all?

Besides, how do we think the leave campaign would have reacted if it came out 52-48 in favour of Remain? I can imagine Nigel Farage standing up in the European parliament and saying he still “wasn’t giving up the fight to one day take Britain out of the EU” regardless of the result…

It’s kind of like the Scottish referendum issue that’s once again raising its head – there would have been another chance for us to come out of the EU if it was the best decision, in the country’s best interests… What we’re seeing now isn’t in the country’s best interests at all. What we’ve seen in the past week, with the deception, game playing and name calling at the top tables, has been enough to see at least some of those who voted leave now express regret that they did so.

Where’s the common sense in modern day politics? Is democracy really that cut and dry? Is it really that inflexible, to the point where, once a decision has been made on one single day out of 365 in a year, it is then set in stone regardless of anyone’s opinion – indeed, regardless of the facts on the table – following on from that?

This is the path on which dictatorships are born… In this case, while it may sound silly, we are being dictated to by democratic rules. By politicians who continue to say what they think we want to hear. Remain campaigners now saying we need to commit fully to leaving – because their loyalty lies with the majority, albeit in this case a narrow one.

You might disagree. How then do you justify shutting down the opinions of the 48% who did not agree with you? Oh, I agree we would have had a similar situation if ‘Remain’ had won… But the difference being, that everyone would have expected ‘euro-skeptics’ to continue to voice their opinions going forward anyway, and we would have had to listen. Their dissenting voices are what would have kept the EU and our own government accountable. It would have been essential that they didn’t just ‘shut up’ once the issue had been settled (because we would’ve known, unless Remain had won by a landslide, that it wouldn’t have been truly settled).

For some reason, though, the 48% who voted remain are now being told they have to ‘shut up and accept’ the outcome. Well, I really don’t think you should; I don’t think any of us should have to ‘shut up’ and accept any result we’re not happy with.

Apparently we should just ‘accept that we lost’ if we dare to suggest Brexit might – just maybe – be a bad idea (as if because 52% said so, it suddenly becomes a good one). The thing is, I don’t think ‘accepting we lost’ is our problem. Surely the ‘remain’ camp knows damn well that it lost. My problem (as I can only speak for myself) is with what looks like coming after that.

If this is what democracy means – that when you lose the vote, you therefore lose your voice – then it has indeed failed us.

Besides, it’s already been acknowledged – it was acknowledged within hours of the result – that some voted under false pretences, thinking certain things would happen that have since not happened. Many of us suspect that’s only the start of it.

Yet still, we are seemingly bound by this vote as if it is law? Only because these politicians care more about their careers (by pandering to each other and the 52%) than what’s in the best interests of the country? That is unacceptable!!

So what are the rest of us going to do about it? Shall we let ourselves leave the EU without a fight, and see our future go up in smoke? Or shall we stand up and be counted? Are we prepared to admit, no matter which way we vote in any situation, that we might have been wrong?

Or let our pride take us out of the EU and into possible oblivion… That is what I believe we’ll get for stubbornly ‘following the rules’ of democracy and listening to those who say it’s impossible to change our minds on this. It isn’t impossible – yet. Our fate with the EU is not set in stone until Article 50 is initiated; at which point it really will be full throttle, no turning back, for better or… no, for worse I’m sure.

The people still have a chance, a window of opportunity before it snaps shut, to stand up and fight this. For 48% of us, our voice isn’t being heard, nor will it be heard as long as we’re trapped under that 50% threshold. That’s probably the sad truth. We’re no longer the government’s chosen audience.

We need to try and change that. Otherwise, the farcical situation we’re seeing now regarding the Conservative and Labour leadership might only mark the beginning of the much bigger farce that ‘Brexit’ will be known as.

P.S. On politicians: these guys (naming no one in particular – just assume I mean the majority) may soon realise that treating people as if they’re stupid no longer works in politics. In their world it often seems to revert back to primitive name calling and accusations designed to discredit the opposing side. Hint: humans have a natural inclination to rebel if given the slightest reason. Most of them don’t have the balls to do it openly, but a voting booth, rather like the Internet, gives them the opportunity to do so without having to deal with the immediate consequences. This referendum may have been one such example, with a ‘leave’ vote representing a prime opportunity to ‘stick it to the man’.

Fair enough, most of us think for ourselves anyway but for those who were torn on which way to vote in this case, the government’s attitude may just have been the tipping point, and in coming across as (dare I say) rather arrogant in their campaign, they in turn partly ensured their (our) own defeat.

Video Games

Baftas of the video game variety.

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So I know I’m sometimes late to the party with these things, but I have had a film festival and other projects keeping me occupied in recent weeks. I did consider just leaving this one alone and moving on. However, not wanting to miss an extra opportunity to spread the love to another medium, I thought I’d go back a few weeks and revisit the furore around the 12th annual ‘Video game BAFTAs’.

Now the only extensive coverage I’ve seen or read about this event, held at the Tobacco Dock in London, is that of the BBC (mainly from this article), who in the past haven’t typically been the most objective or fair when it comes to video games.

Historically they’ve shown ignorance toward the medium, including once labelling all Twitch users “teenagers, just clicking away, playing their video games all night” (from BBC Newsnight report ‘What is Twitch?’, watch it here). Need I also remind anyone that former London mayor Boris Johnson thinks video games “rot the minds of children”? Forget about even specifying what kind of games exactly (in which case we might be able to have a debate); just ‘video games’ in general. It sometimes astounds me, though only sometimes, how intelligent people can think so one-dimensionally.

The mainstream narrative is usually simple: only immature teenage boys and children play video games. Frequently you’ll see older high-nosed gentlemen – who you know have never properly took a controller in hand themselves – reporting on them, and in not really knowing what they’re talking about, they fall back on out-of-date stereotypes.

This time, however, I was pleasantly satisfied by most of the BBC’s coverage, aside from a rather aggravating Radio 4 interview that we’ll get to later. Of course if you’re taking the time to read this, chances are I’m preaching to the converted anyway and you’d agree that video games are at least worth reading about. I digress with the above diatribe only because I still find it a little surprising that despite the negative press they frequently receive, video games are acknowledged as being worthy of these ceremonial awards at all – though having only started in 2004 I think they were nonetheless late to the party.

Of all the games nominated at the ceremony, only a couple I’ve played myself – Life is Strange, winner of Best Story, and Until Dawn, winner of Best Original Property. Metal Gear Solid V is on my playlist; quite a few others I’ll get around to in due time. After all, it took me a while to catch up on Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, one of my favourite games of the past few years and winner of Best Game Innovation in 2014 (it’s certainly deserving of that award and more).

Needless to say games are more time consuming than films; they’re also more fulfilling in the long run. And it’s vital to experience them in visual over written form; hence why I don’t like over-saturating my written content with game talk. Bearing that in mind, let’s wrap up the main talking points swiftly…

Aside from Best British title Batman: Arkham Knight and Best Game winner Fallout 4, one could consider it a year for the ‘indie’ titles, with acclaimed walking simulator (for lack of a better term) Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture walking away – no pun intended – with Best Music, Audio Achievement, and Performer for Merie Dandridge, who played its lead protagonist Kate Collins.

The Arkham Knight team seemed almost offended when asked in an interview about the broken state of their game on PC and subsequent critical panning of the (frankly abysmal) port. I was surprised this topic was even brought up at a ceremony where everyone’s hanging out and otherwise praising each other for how great a job they’d done; unsurprising was the way in which the team brushed off the question about those problems with the port, instead saying “it’s always really hard when people don’t like what you do”.

Well, no shit. But the problem wasn’t that people didn’t like it per se – it was more that the game was released completely broken and borderline unplayable on PC. Too many major game developers think they can get away with slipping a game out like this before going back and fixing it later; at which point they’ve already got your money. You know what would happen to smaller developers if they tried to pull this kind of thing? They’d go under, as is the case with many companies who don’t deliver working products to their customers.

Speaking of smaller developers, Moon Studios were recognised for their adventure title Ori and the Blind Forest, which won the award for Artistic Achievement. It has received acclaim from critics across the board and is available now for Microsoft Windows and Xbox One.

Her Story is another intriguing title, available on Windows, OS X and iOS, in which players have to put together a series of clues to find a missing man. Sounds a simple premise; in that likely lies the main secret behind its success. It won Best Mobile & Handheld and Game Innovation, along with Best Debut for British director Sam Barlow.

It’s worth noting that Her Story is technically an ‘interactive movie’; a genre many games have been aiming for recently and which certain major game developers (looking at you David Cage and Quantic Dream) consider the future of the medium. Well, how the future for one medium can simply be copying another – that being film – is something for which I don’t quite understand the logic. A positive, bright future for video games is surely the day when they can fully stand alone from films and not be constantly compared to them like some inferior younger sibling. It is younger, yes, but not inherently inferior, and should strive to be different, not the same.

This brings us back again to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and the concept of the ‘walking simulator’; another genre recently linked with ‘modernising’ the medium. It seems this game was one of the most popular at the awards ceremony (having won the three awards mentioned above), and I’m going to estimate that’s mainly because it was seen to be ‘breaking away’ from the usual conventions of violent, action-heavy video games. Does that seem too obvious a conclusion?

Well, a Radio 4 interview (contained in the BBC article previously linked to) with Jessica Curry, co-founder of development studio The Chinese Room, gave me that general impression. It starts out with the host (one of those older gentlemen I earlier alluded to) asking, “what makes this game so different? I mean, obviously they’re not all rushing around shooting each other for a start…” before proceeding to ask “are you concerned with the effect that some of this stuff – some of this ‘other’ stuff – is having on children?”

Pump the brakes right there. That goes back to the presumptive BBC narrative I mentioned before, and I could barely listen to any more of this interview. Curry, to her credit, appears to show awareness that she’s being interviewed by someone who doesn’t really know anything about the gaming scene, and gives some PR line about extremes (like this example) being unhealthy and needing to take everything in moderation. I would’ve preferred her to call bullshit, but I understand she wants to keep her job.

Now let’s say by some chance you’re not too aware of the video game scene yourself but have kept reading anyway; maybe the only exposure you’ve had to gaming before is that which you’ve seen on the news or read online, likely accompanied by a sensationalist headline. Video games across the board are often blamed for violence in teenage boys, for mass shootings in America, for failing performance at school, for men mistreating women, for the general disconnect between kids and their parents. I’ve read articles and watched television programmes or movies that have suggested all of these links and many more. Each claim made without a shred of evidence to back it up, other than “this person played video games, therefore…”

My argument would not necessarily be that video games have nothing at all to do with any of those things – but they are not the cause. Correlation does not equal causation. Maybe (only maybe) they did have an effect at some point along the line. But for as long as games are made the face of the problem, it’s impossible to have a conversation that might lead us closer to the real issue. That’s a topic for another time; for now let’s go over a couple of basic points.

First, not all video games are for kids any more than all films are for kids. Obviously there are films suitable for kids. But you would not show your child The Exorcist as if it were a Disney movie. At least I’d like to hope not.

The trouble is, many parents still look at a game like Grand Theft Auto V as if it were a Disney movie. It is not. That large red 18 rating on the cover is there for a genuine reason; because this is a mature game suitable for adults.

Now even if your child was to play an 18 rated game, that does not guarantee anything. I first played GTA when I was about 12 and have turned out a relatively stable human being, but back then I was also reasonably stable and emotionally mature for my age. It’s worth bearing in mind, there are many children who take longer to mature, and the certification rating is there mainly to cover that age range.

The reason I bring this up as particularly important is because when people such as the Radio 4 host mentioned above ask a leading question like, “are you concerned with the effect these games are having on children?” they are referring primarily to games that have a higher age rating than those children playing them. So even if their clear assertion was based on some factual evidence, all they would really be doing is illustrating how vital it is for parents to follow that rating system.

Second, and this is a small leap when one comes to realise they can be enjoyed by adults too, video games actually have the potential to be highly mature pieces of entertainment. Frankly they’re not just toys to sit your kids in front of; nor some mindless button-mashing addiction, even if that is the form a lot of them take (there’s no problem with them being that either). They deserve as much respect in a mainstream context as films; they are at least capable of tackling the same issues, the same themes, and producing the same kind of hard-hitting masterpieces.

In order to reach that potential, they must be allowed to portray tough imagery and allowed to tackle those tough themes. They should be able to feature not only war (see This War of Mine rather than Call of Duty), violence, and murder, but also ethical and moral choices, mental illness, suicide to name a few, without being degraded and threatened with banning for doing so.

Ultimately that’s why I can’t help but take some interest in the video game BAFTAs; an opportunity for this medium to receive some positive mainstream press, also perhaps a chance for the average person to learn a little more about them and come to realise the points I’ve been preaching above. Yes, video games matter to a lot of us – too often are we left frustrated by them simply being passed off as infantile ‘mindless entertainment’.

Belfast Film Festival 2016

Evolution.

I’ve seen Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution twice now, first at a preview screening in London last October and then at this festival. My conclusion on both occasions was simple: this is definitely one of the most eerily atmospheric movie experiences you’ll have this year. Of course, that I was so eager to forego a slot for another film and watch it again here should speak for itself.

There isn’t much of a plot synopsis needed. Basically a group of boys live on an island with their mothers, seemingly far away from civilisation. They’re fed on a diet of disgusting looking black worms and are injected with purple liquid every day to treat a mysterious illness. The boys are occasionally allowed to play together and swim in the sea. The mothers gather on the beach at night. The only footage of men is from a grainy video in a dark room at the hospital, showing childbirth.

One of the boys, Nicolas, likes to draw, but frequently hides his drawings from ‘Mother’ because she apparently disapproves of such creativity. Yet his inquisitive, curious mind leads him to want to know more about what’s going on with the mothers after he sees a dead boy in the sea one day.

No further details should be given. Go into this movie fresh. Some films are best described as an experience; others are given the label undeservedly. Evolution is the most dream-like cinematic ‘experience’ of the past year bar none. You won’t see anything else quite like it.

The film doesn’t rely on a lot of dialogue; extended periods go by without talking, particularly in its second half, where the haunting environment and sounds carry you through. It’s been described separately as a drama and a horror movie; it certainly has subtle elements of the latter, but in truth Evolution deserves a genre all of its own.

8 / 10