Saturday, 29 January 2011

You Have Been Watching...NEDS

Whatever your expectations of Peter Mullan's latest film NEDS are, prepare to have them confounded. You look at the poster and the tagline 'Everyone Need To Be Taught a Lesson' and you'll likely think; gangs, knives, fantastic amounts of swearing, hopefully some dark humour, and, if your lucky, the possibility of redemption. All of these are to be found, but this is a Peter Mullan film. Things are never going to be as they first seem.

There are so many shifts in this film that you'll leave breathless, and likely speechless. The shifts are sometimes subtle when they appear to be obvious. What I mean by this is the scenes you think are key in moving the story on are almost always preceded by other, smaller, scenes that only reveal themselves after later consideration. There is a lovely use of lighting as well. When the film opens it is summer sun that casts a golden hue on everything, but soon scenes take place after dark and in cold, unlit, corners. Craig Armstrong's music also influences the mood without ever intruding on the film, in places reminding me of Tangerine Dream's film work.

There are echoes of A Clockwork Orange, Small Faces, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Alan Clarke's Scum and Made in Britain, and the work of Peter McDougall. Actually I would argue there are too many influences at work so that film fans may be a little distracted trying to spot them all. I can't believe I am the only person who ended up mentally ticking boxes as references to and themes from other films appeared. What this does though is to give the film a fine pedigree to aim for as Mullan places it in the tradition of the above. He is being deliberately bold here, saying these are the films in whose company NEDS belongs, and this allows the audience to contextualise the more excessive aspects, and perhaps better understand them.

Conor McCaron plays the central character John McGill and boy does the camera love him. The film hangs on the audience believing his performance, that this bright and academically driven child can transform into a authority baiting, belligerent, young man who is capable of increasingly violent acts. If  John McGill wasn't so perfectly judged the whole premise would fall apart. McCaron is seething with unresolved and, to him, incomprehensible, anger. Even at the end of the film, when his actions are psychotic I still believed in McGill (and please believe me, this is not a casual use of the term, his actions by the end are psychotic). Actually comparisons with other 'on-screen' psychos such as Patrick Bateman, De Niro's Travis Bickle, or even Tim Roth's Trevor from Made in Britain are telling. They were beautiful to look at. Bodies honed to make them the fighting, and often killing, machines they become, but also making them seem glamorous. McGill is in no way glamorous. You look at his physique and you can see that this is not a boy who has been fighting since he was 10, unlike his brother and many of his peers and opponents. It is in the close ups that you get the character. The move between confusingly watching the world as it unfolds around him to the increasingly unrestrained menace that he exudes, is genuinely subtle, so much so as to make it surprising, but always believable. The threat of violence is in the eyes. I can't wait to see what Conor McCaron does next, but even if he never appears on screen again he can always be proud of this. Few actors ever give such a performance.

Mullan himself gives an extraordinary turn as John's alcoholic and abusive father and reminds us once more that he is the best Scottish actor around. His drunken ticks and mannerisms are exact and disturbing, and the menacing hold that he has over the family is at first eery, then horrific. His scenes with John are horrible, heartbreaking, and help the audience to understand part of what is at the core of John's change in behaviour As the boy moves away from his mother, and aunt's, apron strings he wants to impress, and be loved, by his father. It may be a cliché, but it doesn't make it any less than true.

The actors who play the teachers should not be over looked. Everyone of them are similar enough that you can believe that there is a them and us relationship established early in the kids school lives, but they are individual enough that they have their own characters. Standout are Steven Robertson as Mr Bonetti who seems proud of the young John, yet also strangely jealous, David McKay as the summer school teacher in one of the only purely sympathetic, male, roles, and particularly Gary Lewis as the head of middle school whose world weary views of the playground and those who inhabit it are at the same time comical and depressing. 

But the stars of the film are the kids, all of whom are first time actors. Mullan and his brother Lenny held an open audition and the roles are all filled from those who turned up. You forget about this completely when watching the film, and it is hats off to Mullan that he has managed to extract such performances. It may be a lucky break when your leading actor turns out to be as good as McCaron, but they are all believable and that can't be a coincidence. Mullan has proved himself once again to be a great director of actors, both experienced and novice. These people on screen are completely recognisable to me as people that I was at school with and I can't give higher praise than that. Here is the trailer to NEDS:



NEDS is not without its flaws and problems, but it is a brave attempt to show an area of childhood that many are unaware of, or wish to be. Perhaps a stricter editor could have reigned in the more over the top moments, but those moments are part of the ambition of the film; part of what makes it fresh. It also must be said that it is incredibly brutal in places, but it needs to be. You have to see not only the actual violence, but the terrible results and Mullan is brave enough not to pull the camera away. It is here that many other 'gang' movies fail, often leading to the violence being either cartoonish or glamorised. This is something that NEDS cannot be accused of. Mullan's real achievement is to show the appeal of gang culture as well as the terrible repercussions. When put alongside his other films Orphans and The Magdalene Sisters you realise that Peter Mullan is putting together a body of work to rival Leigh, Loach, Ramsay and Meadows as one of the best film makers around. I just hope we get to see his next work sooner rather than later.

*If I can make a suggestion; the credits are something you should stay for. Not only is it great to see those young actors smiling, it puts what you have seen into a bit of perspective.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Dylan, 69, Revisited: A Celebration of the Other Bob the Bard...

Last night was Bob, tonight it's Burns. I'm fair bursting with inspiration. If I only get to one Celtic Connections gig this year, (and it's looking increasingly likely unless anyone has a spare ticket for John Grant on Sunday night) then I couldn't have picked a better one than the Dylan 70th birthday celebration at the Concert Hall. As a borderline obsessive I was in Bob heaven.

The night was organised and orchestrated by local musician Roddy Hart, whose band The Lonesome Fire acted as house band for the evening, and they were more than up to the task. The list of those they backed is an impressive one. On stage we heard Rab Noakes, Tim O'Brien, Eddie Reader, Thea Gilmore, Gemma Hayes, Kris Dreever, Nell Bryden, James Grant, Josh Rouse, Laura Cantrell, Tommy Reilly and Rosanne Cash. But the real star of the night was absent, despite rumours that suggested otherwise.

Dylan is not only one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, what a night like this proved is that he is a great singer. Yes he is. His voice suits his songs perfectly, and even though many of the above singers are pitch perfect you were pining to hear Bob. There were notable exceptions. Tim O'Brien's blugrass version of Maggie's Farm gave the song new energy, Nell Bryden and James Grant raucously kicked All Along the Watchtower all over the place, and Josh Rouse came closest to capturing Bob's spirit with his versions of The Man in Me and Lay Lady Lay.

But perhaps the stars of the night were Nell Bryden, who bravely, and brilliantly, sang Just Like a Woman, and Rab Noakes, whose version of Mississippi was spine-tingling. However, the real treat was to sit and hear those songs played in one night. Hart did a great job as ringmaster and was hugely impressive when it was his turn to take up the mike. He was obviously having a ball up there. The crowd were slow to warm up, but after the interval drinks kicked in they began to holler and heckle like a Glasgow audience should. The final encore of Like A Rolling Stone, which had all involved back on stage, was met with a standing ovation and an outbreak of communal singing. It was a fitting end to a great evening.

In the spirit of the night, and the fact that finding Dylan footage online is almost impossible, I give you three of my favourite Dylan covers, all of which are notably different to the originals. The first is a man who divides people, particularly when dealing with Dylan. In my eyes he can do no wrong, in terms of music at least (I stick my fingers in my ears like a child when people mention his politics. Hey, I never claimed to be consistent). This is Bryan Ferry's version of Positively Fourth Street:



Next up is Gemma Hayes and Magnet. Hayes covered The Times They Are A'Changing and Most of the Time at the concert. The former didn't quite suit her voice, and the latter is one of my all time favourite songs so she was always going to struggle to impress me with her version. But she is a terrific singer, and everyone would benefit by owning a copy of her album Night on My Side. This is the video for their cover of Lay Lady Lay:



This is rare wee oddity. It's from a radio concert from 1975 and it's Bruce Springsteen covering I Want You:



Happy Birthday Bob when it comes, and remember that a pencil moustache on a 70 year old is an impossible look to pull off, unless your name is Vincent Price.

Monday, 24 January 2011

'You Have Been Watching' (TV Special) The Book Group...

This is exactly the kind of writing that should find its way on to TV screens more often. The Book Group was a Channel 4 comedy that aired for two series in 2002 and 2003. Channel 4 used to be the happy home for new and exciting British comedy, before their twin obsessions of  Big Brother and body dismorphia took precedence, and The Book Group is a great and late example of this. It is rare in that it manages to avoid being stereotypical, even when dealing with apparent stereotypes. There are gay relationships, scenes of drug abuse, disability, eating disorders and footballers wives, but this is no exercise in 'box ticking', every character and relationship rings true. There are Americans, English, Scandinavian, Dutch and Scots interacting naturally; just like in a modern Western city. Who knew? Certainly not people whose only vision of Glasgow has been informed by film and TV, where the prevailing image is still mainly that of 'No Mean City'. The most recent example of this is Peter Mullan's NEDS, a review of which will appear on these pages shortly. NEDS is a great film, and the Glasgow it portrays is one which I recognise, if only from the distance of my youth, but it is important for those who make film and TV, and their audiences, to realise there's more to the city than gang violence, sectarianism and murrderrrr. 

The casting of The Book Group is perfect. American actress Anne Dudek, who has recently been in medical drama House, plays Clare; an uptight would be writer who is horrified to see the disparate characters who answer her advert for a book group. These include the aforementioned footballers wives (Bonnie Engstrom, Saskia Mulder and the genius that is Michelle Gomez), charming arsehole and addict Barney (the underrated James Lance), wheelchair bound idealist Kenny (Rory McCann) and, the best of a very good bunch, Derek Ridell's gay football, and footballer, obsessive Rab.

Ridell and Gomez's performances are outstanding. The former completely believable and charming, the latter melodramatic and effortlessly comic. You may know Gomez from other unhinged performances in Irvine Welsh and Dean Cavanagh's Wedding Belles and the surreal Green Wing. She is a wonderful screen presence whether tackling drama, as in The Acid House, or comedy, and her obvious lack of ego allows her to portray Janice, who is married to bisexual Jackie, as more than slightly unhinged. It is an over the top performance that never topples into ridiculous. 

Ridell, who became a bit of a gay icon with this role, is a revelation as he lusts after Janice's husband, then finds himself used and abused, before having his eyes opened by a holiday romance in series two. If your TV habits include American comedy you may recognise him from Ugly Betty, but he was most recently seen in this country as part of the great BBC/HBO drama Five Days. Someone employ this man on a regular basis. He deserves better.


The second series saw the introduction of Clare's brash sister Jean, and a great performance from Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond from LOST and a fine footballer as well) as the odious publisher Miles. Any resemblance to the living is surely, purely, a coincidence. Often second series are a let down but not in this case. Like other, more famous, sitcoms Fawlty Towers and The Office, part of the appeal is the brevity of the run. There's just enough time to become involved in the character's lives, but not long enough to stop caring.

Clips are hard to come by as Channel 4 guard their comedy jealously, but here is a short one that is typical of the playfulness in Annie Griffin's script. The ABBA overtones are brilliant as is Lars 'confusion':



Perhaps unsurprisingly it took a non-Scots writer (Griffin is an American who moved to the UK in 1981) to deliver such a programme and such an unbiased view of Glasgow. Someone with a fresh perspective. Griffin is also responsible for Festival, the underrated film about the Edinburgh Fringe which was released in 2005. It's a terrifically black look behind the scenes of the festival, from highly paid comedians, to the most 'am of dram', and no-one comes out well. Similarly her writing for The Book Group is shaded on the blacker side of comedy, and there is plenty of real drama contained. It's a comedy that doesn't insult the intelligence of the viewer.

Channel 4 have made good British comedy since The Book Group (Nathan Barley, The IT Crowd and The Inbetweeners come to mind), but not enough, overly relying on American imports. There are great comic writers out there and this is what can happen when they are given a chance. If the The Book Group proves anything it is that Glasgow can be a setting without becoming part of the story itself, and that Annie Griffin should be producing more work than she has. The last thing I remember of hers was the one-off  comedy/drama New Town, set in and around that part of Edinburgh. It was supposed to be a six-part drama, and the pilot won a couple of BAFTAS. The BBC decided not to pick it up, yet they were happy to commission Happy Holidays ( see No longer gemme? ). Mental. No wonder Griffin has not written anything since. Such decisions must break her heart.

You can buy both series of The Book Group online for almost no money. It would almost be rude not to. You could do worse than pick up a copy of Festival while you're at it. But that's for another day.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

This Woman's Work: Liz Lochhead, The First Lady of Scottish Literature...

There are many reasons that Liz Lochhead is the right choice as our new National Makar. She has a fantastic and influential body of work behind her which dates back to the early 70s, a time when, along with Agnes Owens, she was one of the few female voices that were in evidence in what was a significant renaissance in Scottish literature. You may think that her sex is irrelevant. It's not. Her poems often look at personal relationships and beyond from an unapologetic female point of view, and that is still rare enough for it to be important. But there are three central reasons why Liz is perfect for this position; her belief that poetry is for everyone, her desire to put that belief into practice, and her wonderful poems.

I've been lucky enough to have a few chats with Liz over the years and what strikes you when listening to her is her passion for life. Poetry, and art for that matter, is not a job or a hobby to her. It is a central part of her being, and her belief that poetry improves peoples lives is one that I, and hopefully you, share. Part of the remit of the Makar is to promote  poetry to the people, to fire our enthusiasm, and Liz will revel in this. When she was the writer in residence for the Department of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University her door was always open, and she helped many budding writers and poets, organised writing groups and also held one on one sessions. Always positive, even when being highly, and justifiably, critical; people always left with the feeling that their writing would improve as a result of her input. She would appear at reading groups, happily and generously giving her time to those who shared her passion, reading from her own work when asked, but more often giving encouragement to others. She is still a regular reader at schools and colleges. She knows that education is a life long undertaking, but that those formative years are vital.

What Liz's poetry shares with that of her predecessor and close friend Edwin Morgan is an accessibility for all. You don't need to have been taught about iambic pentameter or assonance to appreciate their work. I'm always wary of any art that comes with a set of instructions which are apparently required for you to enjoy it. The best poetry can be read on many different levels, but it should always be inclusive rather than exclusive.  We have been lucky that Morgan and Lochhead are the most welcoming of poets.

Here are a couple of my favourite Liz Lochhead poems, one which is obviously very personal to Liz, the other which was once very personal to me:

SORTING THROUGH
The moment she died, my mother's dancedresses
turned from the colours they really were
to the colours I imagined them to be.
I can feel the weight of bumptoed silver shoes
swinging from their anklestraps as she swaggers
up the path towards her Dad, light-headed
from airman's kisses. Here, at what I'll have to learn
to call my father's house , yes every duster prints her
even more vivid than an Ilford snapshot on some seafront
in a white cardigan and that exact frock.
Old lipsticks. Liquid Stockings.
Labels like Harella, Gor-ray, Berketex.
And, as I manhandle whole outfits into binbags for Oxfam,
every mote in my eye is a utility mark
and this is useful:
the sadness of dispossessed dresses,
the decency of good coats roundshouldered
in the darkness of wardrobes,
the gravitas of lapels,
the invisible danders of skin fizzing off from them
like all that life will not neatly end.
                        *

OPEN WITH THE CLOSING
(Song)
You should never try to make a Lover
Of someone who ought to be a Friend
So let's open with the closing -
Begin with the end.

Don't have to be a Guggenheim scholar
To realise when I'm beat -
Don't get all hot under the collar
when I tell you I've got cold feet.

What right had I to think it might be easy?
Why was I so sure it would be fun?
You know we'd hate to complicate it -
So let's end it before its begun.

First the phonecall, starter's orders
For an over-eager heart -
I was off before the pistol.
False start.

No, no, never try and make a lover
Of someone who ought to be a friend.
So let's open with the closing,
Begin with the end.
                       *

Perhaps the best place to start if you want to read some of our new Makar's poetry is her 1984 collection Dreaming Frankenstein and Collected Poems which collates her first three volumes of poetry. I would also suggest that everyone should own a copy of her play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, which is one of the most accessible and entertaining Scottish plays of the 20th century, and, if you want a fuller picture, you could do worse than get a copy of True Confessions & New Clichés which features songs, monologues, raps, prose and other oddities that don't fit easily with her poetry. There is also a lovely anthology by Canongate Classics which features poems by Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan and Liz. It's called Three Scottish Poets and it would make a great introduction to three of Scotland's best for someone you care for.

There may be other poets who you prefer. I tend to read Don Patterson more than I do Liz Lochhead these days, but this appointment is not about who is someone's favourite, it's about who is best placed to represent Scotland in poetry and, through that poetry, to promote Scotland to others and to itself. It is this that makes Liz the perfect choice. I raise a glass to her and hope you'll do the same.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Fire In: Edinburgh's Literary Secret Revealed...

Before Christmas, between the first and second Ashes Tests to be exact, I was presented with a copy of One O'Clock Gun, Pax Edina: An Anthology and asked if I would consider reviewing it. I confessed that the words on the cover, in that order, meant nothing to me but I'm always willing to try new things. If you know all about The One O'Clock Gun then skip the next paragraph as I'm about to give a brief explanation. The publication may be well known in the capital, but its fame has not travelled up the M8, or, I'm guessing, any other road leaving Edinburgh. That's a real shame, and something that I hope that this anthology could put right.

The One O'Clock Gun was (is?) a one sheet literary publication that appeared in some of the better pubs in Edinburgh from February 2004. In the appendix there is a handy 'User's Guide' to The One O'Clock Gun, illustrated by house artist Lucy McKenzie, so I'll paraphrase from that to explain how the Gun (as everyone tends to call it) works in theory:

1) While having a quiet pint pick up a copy of the Gun.
2) Unfold it and peruse the stories, poems and art that it contains.
3) Turn it over and delight in the fact that it is printed on both sides.
4) Fold it carefully, take it home and spread the word.

All very interesting and novel, but it would mean nothing if the content was not of quality, and while not everything is great writing, taken in context, it is always interesting. What I really like about this anthology is that it includes everything that featured in the original editions. That means that the stories, poems and essays vary in terms of style and content, but not dramatically. In fact the standard is remarkably high. When you discover some of the names involved this is unsurprising. Alasdair Gray, Angus Calder, Suhayl Saadi, Rodge Glass, Kevin Williamson and even Robin Cairns are some of the better known writers that can be found between the covers, but there are many names that I knew little of, and some who were completely new to me, and it is their contributions that are perhaps the most interesting. Actually that's not true, it is the balance of contributors which is the real achievement. The One O'Clock Gun has managed to incorporate different writers and styles while still maintaining an overall agenda of pushing ideas of what literature can achieve, and, perhaps more importantly, how it can achieve it. It's an old adage, but in this case true; that the method of transmission is as important as what is being transmitted.

Some of the work contained is rough around the edges, but surely that is what such a publication is about. The most important thing is to get the paper out, and it is easy to forget as you read this glossy anthology the fanzine nature at the roots of the Gun. There is strong whiff of the punk ethic, the idea that literature is not elite but for everyone. It's as if they are saying 'here's a pen, here's some paper, now go and write. If it's any good we'll publish you.' This plan worked better than the editor Craig Gibson could have hoped. Some of best things included, and these are good enough to justify buying a copy on their own, are James Wood's poems, Alasdair Gray's moving vignette to Billy Semple, the 'Ode To All The Orange Ladies I Have Loved' by 'The Heckler', 'God Saved The Class of '85' by Rodge Glass, 'Uncle' by Andrew Smith, everything by Graham Brodie and Lucy McKenzie's illustrations (particularly the one which has Alex Kapranos having a Martini as James Kelman looks on in disgust). 

But the star of this collection, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the late Angus Calder. I had read some of his poetry, but it is the essays and prose that are included here that surprised me, delighted me, and made me want to read him more widely. It is his writing, as much as the editor's vision, that holds the anthology together and helps maintain the tone. He is witty, political, literary and poetic; all the things to which the Gun obviously aspires to be, and often achieves. His best pieces are 'Drums for Sandie Craigie', 'Dark Seagull' and 'Aux Armes, Citoyens!' where Calder gives great advice to us all; "If it isn't witty or beautiful, don't bother to read it." 

Special mention must be made of edition No 17, the last one collected here. It is an overdue assessment, and attack on, Scottish culture's obsession with duality and the idea of a split personality. It is too simple to say that Scotland is split, or Edinburgh is split, or the Scottish psyche is split, or whatever example you wish to make, especially in a modern Scotland. It's too neat and life's not like that. Peter Burnett's essay 'Stop This Shit Now!' rightly points out that although there are a few prominent and famous examples of duality in Scottish Literature, there are just as many examples in English, French, Russian, Irish, and any literature you wish to offer. It has become an accepted truth that Scotland has a dual nature. It's lazy, clichéd, and outdated thinking that is ferociously and rightly challenged here.

The final piece is Kevin Williamson's brilliant discussion of Scotland's obsession with the idea of an antisyzygy; 'Duality: Come In, Your Time Is Up'. It touches on Descartes, Slipknot, Alexei Sayle, John Knox, Thomas Aikenhead, R.L. Stevenson and The Verve. You may not agree entirely with the premise, but it'll take all of your intellectual ability to argue against it. This is what the Gun often does, challenge pre-conceived ideas (as Howard Jones once sang. This pop referencing is catching). You may feel some of the content is controversial, but a little more controversy in writing, as long as there are sound reasons for it, is no bad thing.

I was originally going to read the anthology straight through and then review it as I would normally do. But then I thought that's not the way such a collection should be approached, in fact it would be detrimental to do so. You should live with it, reading and re-reading favourite pieces until they start to live with you. Stick a copy beside the bed for those times when the thought of picking up that important novel is unappealing, or take it with you to the pub and read The One O'Clock Gun as it was originally meant to be read. Finally those of us who are not residents of Edina can participate.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Celtic Connections 2011: Pick of the Pops...

Last night saw the opening of this years Celtic Connections, a music festival (and more) that just gets bigger and wider in scope. This is my guide to the best of a very good line-up. You may say that I have already done this when the original line-up was announced, and you'd be correct (see Get Yourself Connected...) but since that time other names have been added and more details about bands and sets finalised. For example The Waterboys are performing An Appointment with Mr Yeats, taking the poetry of William Butler Yeats and setting it to music. It should be a special night, and this is a relationship that dates back to The Fisherman's Blues album when the band adapted Yeats' The Stolen Child. That song was my introduction to modernist poetry and subsequently a greater understanding of the world, people and art. It still send shivers through me. This is that track:


They're playing at The Royal Concert Hall on the 30th January and there is also the promise of new versions of old favourites.

There is so much on offer at Celtic Connections that it would empty Fred Goodwin's wallet to attempt to see all the best things on offer. That's why, for value for money, it is always worth going to at least one of the collaborative evenings on offer. The most promising of these is A Night of Celtronika which will be held at the Old Fruitmarket on Friday the 28th Jan. The line-up includes Future Pilot Aka, PJ Moore (of Blue Nile fame), Hidden Orchestra, Future Trad Collective, Strange Rainbow and The Pastels. All electronically lovely, but the most exciting aspect for me will be new commissions by the great Craig Armstrong. From his album The Space Between Us (and every home should have one) this is his adaptation of The Blue Nile's Let's Go Out Tonight, complete with Paul Buchanan on vocals:



But the gig of the festival, and this will be of no surprise to regular readers, will be John Grant at St Andrew's in the Square. He made the album of the year last year (Queen of Denmark) and this is a chance to hear that voice that breaks your heart. A funny man too. Here is one of his best songs, with a great video. This is I Wanna Go to Marz:



Eagle-eyed readers will note that The Waterboys and John Grant are on at the same time on the same night. It is close to being a toss up, but at the moment John just beats Mike, with the hope that The Waterboys return soon. There are many other things to tickle all fancies, so for a full peruse go to celticconnections and pick your own faves. I hope that Celtic Connections continues to grow as it lightens up the dullest January.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

You Have Been Watching...A Woman in Winter

Sometimes you stumble across a band, book or film and think 'how did I miss that?'. Discovering Richard Jobson's Bafta nominated 2005 film A Woman in Winter prompted me to ask that question as it's a film that should be seen. 

As with all of Jobson's films A Woman in Winter is gorgeous to look at. The use of Edinburgh as a setting makes me wonder once again why such a cinematic city is not used more often as a backdrop to films. Jobson uses Old Town and New to great effect as the two central characters explore life with and without each other. Some of the cinematography is breathtaking, and if there is a modern Scottish film maker  who uses the camera in a more artistic manner then I can't think of them. Apart from Lynne Ramsay. 

The film starts slowly with much of the dialogue stilted and awkward, but you soon realise that communication is one of the issues under examination. Why say anything if there is nothing to be said? There are periods of long silences, although, ultimately, not enough. Where the film really runs into trouble concerns the discussions about the (astro)physical rather than the metaphysical. Jobson is on safe ground in Edinburgh, it is when he reaches out to the stars that things go a little awry.

The subplot of the film surrounds quantum cosmology, and the team of Jamie Sives, Jason Fleming and Susan Lynch are completely miscast as the team of astronomers leaders. The problem is all about dialogue, which is at best fanciful, and is often indecipherable. The actors try to convey the gravitas of the matters they are discussing, but they're fighting a losing battle. I'm reminded of the line that Harrison Ford is supposed to have said to George Lucas when given his latest Star Wars script; "George, you can type this stuff, but you can't say it".

And that's a shame, because the film really succeeds when the dialogue is kept to a minimum. The central relationship between Sives' Michael and the mysterious Caroline; a lovely performance from French actress Julie Gayet, is complex yet believable. They embark upon a love affair that is as intense as it is unsettling. From the beginning it is obvious that there is more going on between them than it appears to either us or them. Confusion reigns as we are never sure what is real and what is fantastical, but that is what saves the film. Their relationship is one that becomes an all consuming passion, and Jobson is enquiring about the nature of fate, love, and obsession. There are echoes of a few better known films, to my mind most notably Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, but this is no homage. There have been many 'supernatural' stories set in Edinburgh, but few unfold with the subtlety of A Woman in Winter. Here's the trailer:



There are quite a few problems with A Woman in Winter, but they only serve to highlight the successes. The attempt to marry the central love affair to the discovery by the astronomers of a super nova never quite works, but it never derails the main story as it threatens to early on. This is an unusual and ambitious film, and even though that ambition is never quite fulfilled, it is refreshing that Scotland has a director who is willing to try new things and different styles. One of the reason that I think more people should see this film is to change the perception that is widely held about Jobson's films, that they are straightforward  affairs, all flash and little substance. This is not something I agree with as I think he always asks questions of the audience, but the view holds. He may have tried to overcompensate for this with the script to A Woman in Winter, making it unnecessarily complex in places, but, for all the problems mentioned, this is one of the most interesting films made in Scotland in the last 10 years, and sometimes interesting is better than best.

The film takes its title from The Skids song of the same name, so as a wee treat here they are performing the song in the 1980s with an introduction from Jobbers himself:

Saturday, 8 January 2011

It's Time For The Seventeenth Century...

If there is a band who are more of their time, yet out of time, than The Seventeenth Century then I've not yet heard them. Strings and acoustic guitars? Check. Love of British folk music? Check. Name that suggests more pastoral times? Check. Charismatic lead singer with a penchant for braces and a wonderfully mournful voice? Check. They may seem too good to be true, but having listened to their E.P. The Seventeenth Century (part 1) the truth is that they're just too good.

Their playing is superb. The rhythm section in particular play as if they're trying to channel Bonham and Jones, but it is singer and fiddler Mark Brendan Farmer that lifts The Seventeenth Century above many of the other bands that play this sort of music. His voice matches the songs perfectly, and suggests an old soul is lurking somewhere. If you like Admiral Fallow and/or Burnt Island then I would suggest you'll feel the same way about this band. Here they are playing one of the tracks from (part 1), Young Francis, followed by the excellent Traffic, a song from 2009 which shows that The Seventeenth Century seemed to hit the ground running in terms of aesthetic and style:





Expect The Seventeenth Century (part 2) to arrive in April this year with a full album to follow later in the year. By that time I might have grown sick of (part 1). I might have. The band are playing The Captain's Rest in Glasgow on Tuesday night, and I hope I'll see you there. If you can't make that then you can here them in session on Ally McCrae's new Radio 1 Scotland show between 12 and 2am tomorrow night. Have a go, you might like it.

For more information go to theseventeenthcentury

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

You Have Been Watching...The Near Room

Glasgow Noir. A surprisingly small genre. The city lends itself to the dark shadows, dodgy characters and indecipherable dialogue that noir demands. I don't doubt that one of the reasons for Taggart's long running success is down to the noirish qualities of the city of Glasgow.

The Near Room was released in 1995, and disappeared about a week later. I saw it at a Friday night late show at the Sauchiehall St ABC in the slot they used to put 'cult' and horror films. I remembered it as being rather good, so was pleased when it was released on DVD. Directed by and starring David Hayman, the strong cast also includes a young Julie Graham, Tom Watson, David O'Hara, the underrated Robert Pugh, the always excellent Adrian Dunbar, Andy Serkis, Peter McDougall, and the first on screen appearance of Mr Tumnus himself, little James McAvoy.

Dunbar is journalist Charlie Colquhoun whose life over the latter years has fallen apart. He is contacted by Tommy, brilliantly played by Emma Faulkner, the now 17 year-old daughter who was placed in a foster home when she was younger, and who now finds herself at the centre of the blackmailing of a high-profile policeman. The Near Room is unremittingly dark. Set in the underground world of pornography,drugs and prostitution the film revels in the seedier side of life, as is only right for noir. I recently saw it for the first time since 1995, and it holds up well. It is beautifully shot, although so dark in some scenes as to be almost pitch, and it's a genuinely thrilling film. Below is a rare clip, including some excellent swearing. It features McAvoy, and suggests that he has a portrait in his attic as he doesn't seem to have aged in the last 15 years:



It is quite amazing to consider the number of the films featured on these pages which have only the briefest of flings in the cinema.  Complicity, 16 Years of Alcohol, Urban Ghost Story, A Shot at Glory, The Near Room and many others have come and gone before many people knew of their existence and were never given the chance to find an audience. This also applies to recent Scottish feature film Donkeys, nominally the follow up to award winning Red Road, which has received mostly glowing reviews. I've probably said this before, but if you're going to make these films, something which is an extraordinary achievement in itself these days, at least allow them the possibility of finding an audience. I realise that it is a question of economics, but those films named, with the exception, perhaps, of A Shot at Glory, could have found an audience outside of art house cinemas. It would be nice to think that the New Year would see some more inventive programming at the local multiplexes, but I imagine that's overly optimistic.

(a shorter version of this review appeared on the 26/1/10)