FilmSpace: The opening weekend of Glasgow Film Festival - reviews

CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson checks in from the first weekend of the Glasgow Film Festival

DELIGHTFUL ANIMATION, long-awaited masterpieces, and world premieres – it must be the Glasgow Film Festival. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: such a young festival (it began in 2005) has no right being this good. Here is just a taster of what has come so far...

The Breadwinner – ★★★★☆

Cartoon Saloon deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Pixar and Studio Ghibli. The Irish studio has only three feature films to its name, but each is an absolute marvel, acting as reminders that the imagination is unlimited and so, too, is the often-underutilised potential of animation.

The Breadwinner is a wholly more serious film than the fairytale-esque Song of the Sea. Set in Afghanistan, it tells the story of young Parvana, forced to provide for her family after the death of her older brother and arrest of her father. Unable to leave the house without being accompanied by a man, she cuts off her hair, disguises herself as a boy, and sets to work.

Accompanied by Shauzia, another girl with the same idea, the image of these two children walking dangerous streets doing what they need to do is genuinely stressful, yet moving; this is and always has been the lives they have known.

After the cetic greens of Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner is doused in unforgiving, thirst-inducing reds. The land is that familiar hue of harsh beauty accompanied by civil war, controlled by the Taliban, in a constant state of unrest and tension. Accompanied by Shauzia, another girl with the same idea, the image of these two children walking dangerous streets doing what they need to do is genuinely stressful, yet moving; this is and always has been the lives they have known.

Adapted from the book of the same name by Deborah Ellis, both she and director Nora Twomey have made a piece of art that treats children with respect and maturity. It’s unlikely Parvana had much innocence to lose having been raised in volatile Kabul, but this is a story for everyone to come to grips with the terror people of all ages live with in places with very different, very upsetting, definitions of ‘normal.’ A marvellous achievement for a universal audience.

Columbus – ★★★★★

Premiering at Sundance over a year ago, Columbus still hasn’t received a wide release date for the UK. Having done the festival circuit and been released in the USA last August, the word is out there that it’s an absolute treat, but it’s playing hard to get.

Turns out it’s worth the effort. First-time director Kogonada has made something quite uncategorisable, yet completely universal. Casey lives in Columbus, Indiana with her mum, looking after her while working in the library. Jin is in town because his estranged father, a famous architect, has taken ill. Unable to sit by his bedside, he listlessly walks the streets, half-ignoring the architecture in the town he describes as a Mecca for those with an interest in intricate and unique buildings. Casey is one such individual.

This is no regular love story, which is a relief and to its benefit. There is a 23 year age gap between John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, and while there is an element of romance to their characters’ connection, the film stays on the right side of that bond.

Watching the film, it’s the most obvious thing in the world that there’s no greater purpose than bringing two people together.

They wander the streets as Jin bides his time and Casey relishes someone who even slightly understands her love of architecture. He wants her passion; she wants his aloof freedom. They complement each other by making the effort to try and understand the other. Neither of them are unlikable, nor are they misfits: they’re just two people who found the right person at the right time.

Which makes Columbus comparable to a Richard Linklater movie, in that everything important happens between the characters. Kogonada knows how to assign meaning to the meaningless, and the buildings which are empty and lifeless are given a presence when we revisit them later. They become markers of something significant that has happened. They are technical marvels, sure, but they only take on meaning once they have fulfilled a purpose. Watching the film, it’s the most obvious thing in the world that there’s no greater purpose than bringing two people together.

Cinematographer Elisha Christian makes Columbus look otherworldly, with uncanny buildings and a slightly dimmed colour palette. The film’s universality means it could take place anywhere, and this is an unfamiliar city for anyone who hasn’t visited. Wandering the streets together and visiting the landmarks is a sure fire way to get to know someone, and there’s a feeling that you’d be content to watch Casey and Jin wander forever.

It won’t be for everyone, but there’s an audience for this that will be completely spellbound by its characters and their relationships. I am one of them, and hope that we’re drawing ever nearer to a proper release for what will be one of 2018’s best films.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower – ★★★★☆

With Studio Ghibli’s future in a seemingly constant state of uncertainty, Studio Ponoc has been set up by the former’s lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura. If this is to be what comes next, thank God there are those determined to preserve the wonder that until now only Ghibli could provide.

Based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a rather beautiful little story about a girl who finds a flower with the power to turn her into a witch for the night. Bored waiting for school to start after moving to an estate, her ennui stuck attempting chores during the day is juxtaposed by the flying broomstick, the school for witches, and the seemingly endless potential she has as a witch.

These are the protagonists of the best tales, the heroes who never think twice, and the ones who never consider saying no.

The English accents are jarring at first (although it has to be said Ghibli dubs are generally the best), but Ruby Barnhill’s Mary is a believably spunky young girl, daring to leap before she looks. Her flaming red hair mirrors a certain reckless abandon necessary for these stories to take place – of course she follows the cats who lead her to the flowers, of course she stays on the broomstick, of course she won’t leave her friend behind. These are the protagonists of the best tales, the heroes who never think twice, and the ones who never consider saying no.

And it’s that curiosity, that wonder, that keeps Studio Ponoc’s debut feature gliding along. Everything looks majestic, from the sprawling grasses of the British countryside to the bustle of Endor College, the school for witches and warlocks. It’s a fully realised world that is much bigger than any one individual, especially the small Mary, but she fills it with her desire to investigate everything, stemming from that initial boredom.

In the end, it’s not that Mary and the Witch’s Flower is about any one thing, but that living the adventure is a tiny miracle to behold. Animation is thriving at the moment, and long may it continue.

Lean on Pete – ★★★☆☆

Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is a touching and profoundly sad film about two retirees re-evaluating their entire relationship after a historical discovery. It’s slow, and you’re there for every moment of the unravelling, but at an hour and a half, it’s just the right amount of quiet.

Lean on Pete, his next feature, is similarly quiet, but coming in at the two-hour mark dampens the impact. Young Charley lives with his dad, a man we know to be carefree and reckless, and whose passing fancies Charley judges each morning. Restless and keen to contribute, Charley offers to help Del (Steve Buscemi) with his horses at the races. Forming a bond with one of the racers called Lean on Pete, Del constantly tells the boy to never become attached to the horses, all the while selling on those who are no longer fit for purpose.

In the vast expanse that’s sparsely populated, it’s easy to find yourself lost with nowhere to go and no one who cares.

From there it becomes a search for a bond that gives life meaning. We’re shown another side of America, endless deserts and fairground races with small-town jockeys and cowboy hats. Each bar they visit is the kind of bar inhabited by the same people every night. In the vast expanse that’s sparsely populated, it’s easy to find yourself lost with nowhere to go and no one who cares. Homelessness exists right in front of our eyes, and what is there to protect you from it when there’s no one left?

Charley’s journey and his relationships with his dad, with Del, with Lean on Pete, are all touching, but the film’s deliberate pace is appreciated more than it’s effective. The latter half is particularly slow, and while that mirrors Charley’s determination and desperation, it does become an endurance test as a viewer too.

There’s plenty to take from Lean on Pete if you’re willing to put the work in. On occasion, I have to throw my hands up and say this simply is not my kind of film, much like the similarly acclaimed God’s Own Country. I recommend them both, I recommend an open-mind, but Lean on Pete left me colder than it intended, which is a shame because there’s no doubting its heart or intentions.

The Party’s Just Beginning – ★★★☆☆

The directorial debut feature from Karen Gillan (also on screenplay duty) is one of the Glasgow Film Festival’s world premieres. Set in Inverness, it’s a Scottish film through and through, not just because of its northern setting, but also its approach of dealing with the horrible with humour and an immovable stare.

Young Liusaidh is lost. Working at the cheese counter of the local supermarket, she complements her lifestyle with drugs and random, passionless sexual encounters. Walking home, late night chips in hand, she sees the suicides of people she knows and loves, unable to stop it from happening. She helps those around her, but is unfulfilled, unsure what she’s looking for.

It’s wild and vibrant. Like Liusaidh, the film itself is all over the place, transferring her disorientation to the audience. A tender conversation with an elderly man who phoned the wrong number is as at home here as a bonkers night of dancing at her local club is. An initially nameless man with an eight-year-old daughter and kind eyes becomes the closest thing to reliable for a time, while everything around her is in turmoil.

Beneath the madness and hedonism is a film about how we fail each other and fail ourselves, but in that Scottish way, we sorta laugh at it, and put those worries away for another day.

In a post-film Q&A, Karen Gillan spoke of being inspired by the high figures of male suicide in the Scottish Highlands. The film’s Inverness isn’t cold, but it’s a place with people who are lonely and forced into silence, with people living without compassion because of old age, because of religious beliefs, and because of an irrepressible guilt. Beneath the madness and hedonism is a film about how we fail each other and fail ourselves, but in that Scottish way, we sorta laugh at it, and put those worries away for another day.

It’s a loud and proud assured directorial debut from Gillan, who says she’s learned much from the process, but the real achievement is how confidently she’s pulled the whole thing off. The Party’s Just Beginning teeters on the brink of collapsing on itself, its jagged editing deliberately erratic, but it works to form a film with good intentions and something to say.

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