Son of Babylon Review


Mohamed Al-Daradji’s latest film offers a devastating look at the effect of the genocidal campaign against the Kurdish people of Northern Iraq led by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist Regime. A subject so easily forgotten, it sheds new light on an ever-persistent horror forgetten by the west.

The film follows 12-year-old Ahmed (Yassir Talib) and his grandmother Um-Ibrahim (Shehzad Hussen) as they head south in search of Ahmed’s father, after hearing that there are surviving prisoners of war now that Saddam has fallen. Along the way, they are constantly met with the aftermath of bloodshed, hitching rides and crossing the paths of others sharing equally disheartening histories in an unending journey which offers no consolation.

American soldiers, referred to as ‘pigs’, highlight the west’s failure to address the real problem. Al-Daradji’s use of non-professional actors who have witnessed the devastation first hand adds authenticity to the piece.

Somewhat surprisingly, Al-Daradji’s superb choice of the striking boy Talib for the lead role came after he bumped into him in Northern Iraq. Hussen has herself been searching 20 years for a husband who went missing and was the only female witness to testify against Saddam at his trial.

Both actors are so convincing in their roles that the result is truly powerful. A notable mention must also be made to Bashir Al-Majid who plays Musa and briefly offers a father figure for Ahmed whilst he himself is plagued by a harrowing past.

Showing a mother’s defiance to accept the truth and a son’s retracing of the footsteps from a father he never knew, Son of Babylon is a truly breathtaking work of art whose cinematography is nothing short of exquisite.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Feb 22 2011.

Biutiful Review


Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film is a tumultuous journey through one man’s acquiescence of mortality. Through powerful cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto combined with excellent acting, an incredibly moving experience is created.

Biutiful centres on the life of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a fixer living in Barcelona who arranges work for illegal immigrants as well as making money through telling relatives of the recently deceased parting messages from beyond the grave.

Through his exploitation of others, Uxbal is not an immediately likeable person and yet, in an Oscar nominated performance, Bardem creates a truly endearing character.

Following an estranged marriage with his alcoholic, bipolar wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) who is having an affair with his sleazy brother Tito (Eduard Fernández), Uxbal is left alienated when diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer.

With two children to look after but no one to help when he is gone, Uxbal faces a painful anxiety as he struggles to accept his immanent fate.

Beautifully poetic, the film is illustrious with metaphor as a vision of his deceased father he never knew gives some reassurance to an otherwise lost will of existence.

Terrific sound from José Antonio García adds to the rising tension of the film, teetering on the overwhelming in its support of its desolate themes.

However, with its many branching sidelines to equally morbid subplots the film is perhaps idealistically grim.

Bardem is undeniably brilliant in the ruthless honesty to which he encapsulates the deterioration – both mental and physical – of a dying victim and yet surprisingly this is not sufficient enough for Iñárritu.

The sincerity of Bardem’s performance is hindered by a somewhat implausible combination of equally depressing coincidences. As the world which is formed around Uxbal literally falls apart there is a sense that Iñárritu has gone too far in the extent to which he adds an ongoing oppressiveness to the tale making the film emotionally draining.

Despite this, it would be unfair not to focus on what is an otherwise astonishing film. A truly breathtaking performance on the part of Bardem and some deeply moving scenes make this a vexatious watch. If only this was continuous throughout.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Feb 1 2011.


Neds Review


In his first directorial role since The Magadalene Sisters which came out 8 years ago, Peter Mullan delivers a hard-hitting drama which makes a poignant cry to the working-class gang culture within Glasgow during the 1970s.

Neds follows the hugely gifted John Mcgill (played by Conor McCarron) exceeding his peers at school and with aspirations of attending university. However, his transgression to secondary school meets him with uninspiring teachers who have given up on a youth where education is disregarded in favour of gang violence and drinking.

As McGill approaches adolescence, he is left with the tenuous decision as to how he will shape his future. Unaided by a lack of encouragement, his brilliance is hindered by his fate as a poor working-class boy from a broken family which consists of an abusive alcoholic father (excellently portrayed by Mullan), a submissive mother (Louise Goodall) and a brother (Joe Szula) who is always in scraps with the law.

This coming of age story is illustrious in its capturing of the stress of social pressure within class. This is made evident in his dismissal by the mother of his middle-class friend Julian (Martin Bell) who he is told no longer to mix with.

McCarron, despite his somewhat thuggish and dim-witted appearance creates an endearing character whose often confused and sensitive looks gives the impression that he no longer knows what he is doing, straying away from the person he really is by creating a persona that is alien to his nature.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the film appears so powerful is Mullan’s use of many non-professional actors found on some of the estates where filming took place which adds a definite authenticity to the film.

Despite being predominately excellent, the film does, however, fall on some minor points. The closing third of the film seems to wane as the viewer is left to wonder where the plot is being led and the film seems to have more than a passing resemblance to Shane Meadows’ This is England although delivered in a more ingenuous and grittier fashion.

However, it is undeniable that Mullan has created a film that is brutally honest in its portrayal of a gang culture that is still prevalent today in a film that is both shocking and yet incredibly sad, allowing him a firm place amongst some of the finest British filmmakers.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Jan 25th 2011.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader Review


With a new director for the third installment of Lewis’ Chronicles, Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough, Gorillas in the Mist) continues the saga which sees Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) return to the world of Narnia with their supercilious cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) to help King Caspian (Ben Barnes) destroy a corrupting evil which is oppressing the people of Narnia.

Whilst the film contains some mildly impressive special effects, its plot trundles on never offering any real sense of danger.

The protagonists continuously manage to evade any serious harm and appear to be somewhat of a nuisance to the Narnians who find themselves ever risking their lives to save them. The acting is relatively dry, exemplified by the fact that the children are incredibly irritating.

The film is perhaps saved by highly entertaining performances from Simon Pegg of the rapier bearing mouse Reepicheep and despite his odious nature, Will Poulter (Son of Rambow, School of Comedy) pulls off an impressive Eustace.

As a Christmas time family film it provides adequate entertainment for children who would be too young to notice its allusions to Christianity instead enjoying its melee of fantastical creatures and characters.

However, for an older audience, its lack of suspense and generally mediocre acting will leave many somewhat unsatisfied.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Jan 11th 2011.

Mary and Max Review


This clay-animation from Australian director Adam Elliot blends dark themes with a poignant sense of endearing friendship.

The plot revolves around a bespectacled 8-year-old girl from Australia devoid of friends besides her pet rooster Ethel.

In search of companionship she writes a letter on a whim to the address of one unknown 40-something, Max Jerry Horowitz in New York, asking where babies come from as her grandfather told her they are found at the bottom of beer glasses.

Despite at first being ‘‘confuzzled’’ by the letter which causes him great anxiety, Max decides to respond saying that when he was four, his mother told him they came from eggs laid by rabbis if you were Jewish, Catholic nuns if you were Christian and prostitutes if you were atheist. Thus starts a twenty-year relationship of an unlikely pairing of individuals.

The film is deeply touching as Mary offers Max the social interaction he has always wanted but found difficult as he has Asperger’s syndrome. Her naivety allows her to ask questions which fit Max’s literal way of thinking thus allowing for humour but also an innocent friendship which breaks the obvious age barrier. There is no feeling that the relationship is one that is unusual but works given the circumstances of the two. This only sees tension as Mary begins to grow up, as losing her innocence she begins to relate to Max in a way which he finds difficult.

Dealing with themes such as loneliness, depression and anxiety, the film is at times oppressive, but this only accentuates the remarkable friendship of the pair who despite being from completely contrary backgrounds are able to associate their various lifetime experiences offering useful advice for each other that is anything but conventional.

Delivered entirely in monochrome with Max’s world in black and white whilst Mary’s is sepia, it emphasises the mundanity of their unhappy existences which appear complete only when brought together.

Elliot has made a bold move in trying to capture the relationship of this disparate pair that is both personal and compassionate. An animation reserved for adults, it offers a very individual look at an unusual circumstance. Based on a true story and featuring an all star voice cast (Toni Collette, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana and Barry Humphries), this is an animation that shouldn’t be missed.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Oct 26th 2010.

A Town Called Panic Review


A charming piece of stop animation that throws logic out the window, A Town Called Panic offers an innocent look into the fictional realities that are akin to our childhood fantasies we construct with toys.

Created by Belgian animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, it is the feature film of their cult series of the same name.  Perhaps surprisingly, they are no strangers to UK television, being the minds behind the ludicrous Cravendale milk adverts that feature a cow, a pirate and a cyclist.

This latest piece was part of the official selection at Cannes last year and has already received notable commendations from esteemed publications.

The plot centres on a disorganised household containing a horse, a cowboy and an Indian. Following the theft of the horse’s house by some mysterious strangers, the trio embark on a voyage to retrieve the stolen walls encountering the centre of the earth, a frozen plateau and an underwater village along the way.

The forte of the piece lies in its simplicity with its rugged, unpolished use of stop-motion.

The characters, merely unpretentious figurines, some of which still with their bases attached, adds an original character which goes beyond the meticulousness of more common stop-motion such as that used by the infamous Aardman productions. This combined with a complete lack of scale – as life-sized mugs appear ridiculous measured next to the miniature models -gives unexpected insight into this bizarre world where nothing makes sense, but at the same time doesn’t need to. Such disregard for continuity hasn’t been seen in animation since the likes of Terry Gilliam.

Although perhaps too intense for some with its very ‘in your face’ approach to comedy, the brilliance of this film is its absurdity. By bringing new meaning to the word surreality, this is childlike humour that is not restricted to a younger audience, the older viewer connecting with its ingenuousness.

Some would also argue that the film drags on slightly, which is strange considering its short runtime, but this is only due to the incredibly erratic nature of the animation. Its fast paced, action packed style means that the moments when you are not being punched in the face with incongruous action, the pace of the film slows somewhat.

Despite this, the ingenuity of the film makes it one of the more original films of the year that manages to prove that there is still high quality animation beyond Disney Pixar.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Oct 19th 2010.

EIFF – The Edge of Dreaming Review


A thought provoking documentary that delves into one woman’s understanding of the existential and the power of the human mind.

Amy Hardie claims she never remembers her dreams but one night she wakes up suddenly after a vivid dream about her horse dying which turns out to be true. This is followed by a dream that in her 48th year, she herself dies. This film follows that year as Amy gets diagnosed with a serious illness and faces the ongoing battle with her consciousness where her dreams seem to point towards a premonition for reality.

A student at the Edinburgh College of Art,  using simple film techniques Amy allows the viewer to explore her thought processes as they develop and question the validity of the physical against the psychological and the spiritual against the material.

Accompanied by excellent animations from Cameron Duguid, the distinction between dream and reality becomes blurred as Amy wonders which possesses the greater authenticity. As a science film maker by profession, Amy approaches the ordeal scientifically trying to explain the phenomenon in terms of neural pathways and seeking the help of neuropsychologist Professor Mark Solms for answers.

This film does however falter in some respects, mainly the believability of  Amy’s predicament which is sometimes seen as questionable and to those who do not dare to follow the path of mysticism may appear overbearingly fallacious. Also, the film feels rather long for what it is and there is a constant feeling that the piece would be more apt for a viewing in an art installation as opposed to a film festival. Despite this the concept behind the film is very interesting and allows for much questioning of the metaphysical as well as the place of the psychological within the constraints of everyday reality.

EIFF – Son of Babylon Review 18/06/10


A devastatingly beautiful look at the effect of the genocidal campaign against the Kurdish people of Northern Iraq led by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Regime.

Son of Babylon follows a 12 year old boy Ahmed (Yassir Talib) and his grandmother Um-Ibrahim (Shehzad Hussen) as they head south in search of Ahmed’s father after hearing that there are surviving prisoners of war now that Saddam has fallen. Along the way they are constantly met with the aftermath of bloodshed, hitching rides and crossing the paths of others sharing equally disheartening  histories in an unending journey which offers no consolation.

Incredibly moving, Mohamed Al-Daradji’s film illustrates an unrealised Iraq and a subject so easily forgotten by the Western populace shedding new light on an ever persistent horror. Featuring few appearances from American soldiers who are referred to as “Pigs”, it highlights how the major problem of Iraq is not being addressed by the Occident. It shows a mother’s defiance in accepting the truth and a son’s retracing of footsteps from a father he never knew.

Continuing his passion for non famous actors, Al-Daradji showcases the superb talent of Talib a striking boy who he bumped into in Northern Iraq and Hussen who herself has been searching 20 years for a husband who went missing and was the only female witness to testify against Saddam at his trial. Both are so convincing in their roles that the result is truly hollowing. A notable mention must also be made to Bashir Al-Majid who plays Musa and briefly offers a father figure for Ahmed whilst himself is plagued by a harrowing past.

I feel it is important to illustrate that this film was released in conjunction with the Iraq’s Missing Persons campaign launched by Human film and Iraq Al-Rafidain which states on the Human Film website: “The Iraq Ministry of Human Rights estimate more than 1.5 million have gone missing over the last 40 years and estimate 500,000 bodies have been recovered from 300 mass graves so far. This number will grow as more mass graves are discovered, which is sure to overwhelm the limited resources that aid organisations in Iraq have. Human Film hopes the ’IRAQ’S MISSING’ campaign and ‘SON OF BABYLON’ will communicate the extent of the genocide and begin the redirection of resources dedicated to the identification of the bodies. The campaign is close to the hearts of the film-makers and one that inspired the journey portrayed in ’SON OF BABYLON’. Isabelle Stead, Producer, quotes, ‘I hope it will inspire a high-profile approach to human rights violations that will no longer go unnoticed by the world’.”

A truly breathtaking work of cinema with exquisite cinematography, if there is one piece of World Cinema you watch this year, make it this.

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EIFF – Fog (Wu) Review 17/06/10


Kit Hui’s first feature-length film is a haunting exploration of one man’s confrontation with the devastating effects of amnesia.Convincingly acted by Terence Yin who plays the lead character Wei, the audience are faced with the anguish and confusion of a quest into the inexorable.

The cause of Wei’s amnesia is never mentioned but this becomes unimportant as instead it creates an emphasis on his character and internal struggle. His search for personal identity with no notion of the context of social norms leaves him struggling against a constant battle of dejection and alienation.

Set against the backdrop of Hong Kong’s handover from British rule to the sovereignty of China, although not explicit, a metaphor can be seen where new identity pushes out the old and the possibility of a clean slate is born. We are only hinted at the antecedent to Wei’s life but as mentioned by his friend Andy (Phat Chan) “It’s better that you don’t remember some things”.

Being the UK premiere there was a fascinating Q&A with director Kit Hui who was able to illuminate various aspects of the film that appeared ambiguous and explain her motives behind various decisions she made in the film making process such as the accentuation on the background noises which are distinct and unique to the various settings of the piece and draws you in, this combined with beautiful music from the Icelandic band Amiina created an incredibly powerful atmosphere.

The film is however slow to get going and requires a certain amount of patience and perseverance but then this is arguably necessary in order for the viewer to become fully empathetic towards Wei. Also it seems to end at quite an unexpected point leaving things unresolved which would be fine although it never appears to be justified. It cannot be denied though that this is a compelling piece of cinema that proves that you do not need a Hollywood sized budget to create a work of art.

EIFF – The Illusionist Review 16/06/10


Much hype has surrounded this film given that it is the opening gala for this years Edinburgh International Film Festival just about completely selling out the 1000+ capacity of the Festival theatre the day tickets were released.

Introduced by a short speech from the Artistic Director of the EIFF, Hannah McGill and Director of the film, Sylvain Chomet, the audience were met with an entertaining yet sincere man who claimed Edinburgh to be better than Cannes and emphasised his love of the city in which the film was set.

A perfect beginning to the festival, Chomet captured the essence of Edinburgh’s streets, buildings and bridges without ever being too brash focusing on beautiful animation rather than the ever increasing affectation of 3D imaging which often substitutes quality for dazzlement. There is a definite delight in the recognition of Princes street, Arthur’s Seat and the department store Jenners where Chomet conveys these noteworthy landmarks in his own pastiche style.

Similar to previous effort Bellevile Rendez-vous, the script contains little to no dialogue instead emphasising actions and expressions to allow for conversation, this is made more understandable by the language barrier present in title character Tatischeff.

The film seems to highlight a dejected sense of nostalgia where the emergence of rock and roll bands has meant the incurring end of other entertainers. This is only made more apparent in the amiable naivety of Tatischeff’s child companion Alice who seems to be convinced of the performer’s authenticity and thus becomes the focus of  her attention but which falters as she ages and is led to more interesting passions such as boys.

However, despite a stunning closing scene there is a feeling that the film is wrapped up too abruptly. It is a story underlined with melancholy but which lacks convincing enough characterisation. Although it was very special and indeed appropriate having the elegant portrayal of Edinburgh there is a wonder that having been set in foreign surroundings it would have lost much of  its magical appeal.