Killing Escobar

Killing Escobar is a documentary about an operation by British mercenaries to kill Pablo Escobar in 1989. The film focuses on Peter McAleese, a Glasgow born ex-SAS soldier who took to mercenary work in various colonial and Cold War conflicts. His reputation was such that he was hired by Dave Tompkins, an arms dealer and soldier for hire, who had been commissioned by a rival cartel in Colombia to kill drug baron Pablo Escobar. There was a cartel war at the time, and so many innocent people were dying as a result of their bombings and attacks, that all authorities kinda turned a blind eye to the assassination mission, hoping that its success might bring about a cessation of hostilities.

Now, everyone in this is a bastard. There are no good guys in this. But it is nonetheless a remarkable story. There is a huge about of preparation, arms, and money poured into the operation. They go into detail about how it would work, with dramatic re-enactments. And they have interviews with a lot of surprising players, like the head of Escobar’s personal security.

A high-stakes tale of derring-do, fronted by a baw-heided Glaswegian and his massively shady mate.

Yer Old Faither

Yer Old Faither is about the life of John Croall, a Glasgow native who emigrated to Australia, to the little town of Whyalla. It is a film which traces out the extraordinary impact of an ordinary life. Or not entirely ordinary, because Croall was a bit of a character.

The film traces his professions and passions, his love and concern for life. When he arrived in Australia, he was so impressed with the huge range of beautiful foliage. He had that immigrant’s ability to see with new eyes what everyone else takes for granted. He loved golf, but was unimpressed with the golf course in Whyalla, so he quietly began growing tree samplings, and planting them out on the golf course and surrounding areas. Over his lifetime he planted somewhere between five and six thousand trees.

He was an obstetrician, and delivered three generations of babies over his 40-year career serving Whyalla. Despite being seen as a bit of an eccentric, which was fair, he was very highly regarded. The nurses and midwives interviewed all spoke of him very highly, saying he had magic fingers, and was able to turn a breach when no one else could. He was dedicated and would come out any hour of the day or night when called, and would take all night turning a baby, no matter how long it took he had the patience. They said he was an expert in breach births, and could make successful deliveries other doctors wouldn’t even attempt. For a many years, he was Whyalla’s only obstetrician and was prepared to take on that work and responsibility solo. When he started working there, the mortality rate among mothers and babies dropped.

He was also the only doctor performing abortions outside of the cities in South Australia. He ensured women in Whyalla could get safe healthcare and terminations right there in their local hospital. And it was a bit of a discovery to his daughter, when putting the film together, that he had in fact studied to be a priest in the Vatican. He was raised Catholic in Glasgow, was sent to the seminary, then sent to study in Rome for 7 years. Then finally sacked it, and became a doctor. And this was never a point of conflict for him, because he disagreed with the Church’s view on reproductive health entirely. So he really led the way in reproductive care in his part of the world.

After he retired, the midwives lamented, they were unable to find anyone to replace him, as a small post-industrial town away from the city wasn’t a very attractive destination for a new doctor. They no longer had 24-hour care in the maternity unit, they were served only by a rotating locum, and they wouldn’t come out when off duty, and some even had to be flown in from Germany and America, with one obstetrician’s caesarean section rate well above 70%, when Croall’s had been at 8%. When Croall retired, his retirement party wasn’t thrown by management, but by the nurses and midwives. He was a doctor who was very well respected by women.

And in his free time, he made tables from recycled wood. Towards the end of the film, one of the trees in his garden has to come down, and he decides to turn it into a table, and it feels like a metaphor for the breadth of his impact, that here is this tree he planted 40 years ago, grown thick and solid, and now felled and also turned into something beautiful. It is like even with the trees in Whyalla, he cares for them cradle to grave.

As the film comes to the end of its story and the end of Croall’s life, they start playing Caledonia. And I, of course, burst into to tears. You can’t do that to us, you know that’s the Scottish kryptonite! The film just radiates with the love his family have for him, and he for them, and his love for his community, and the town’s love for him, and his love for nature, and these wide vines of impact he had for the better in his little corner of the world, in his garden. It’s just so moving, such a beautiful portrait, such a celebration of this quietly extraordinary ordinary man.

Surge

Surge is about a guy having a total mental breakdown.

Ben Wishaw is outstanding in this nerve-searing, idiosyncratic, spontaneous feeling performance. He looks like every interaction he has with someone in this film is using the last thread of his patience. In November, I got a wisdom tooth out, and the pain was white electric, throbbing through my jaw, it felt like every one of my teeth was about to burst, it snaked up past my temple and into what felt like a crease in my skull, spread across one side of my face, along my cheekbone, and it was too painful for me to open my eye or even my mouth. Ben Wishaw looks like he’s in that kind of pain in every single second of this film. He looks like what it feels like in a microwave right before your blood starts to boil.

The sound design in this is amazing, making you feel like he’s experiencing a full-body migraine. Every noise, every beep, every clang feels like this building crescendo, a complete sensory overload driving him insane. And the way it is filmed is very frenetic and too close, like the world is pushing in and in on him. It all feels very improvised and naturalistic, as though the story beats might be in place, but the journey is being led by Wishaw’s performance. It adds to this sense you don’t know what the character is going to do moment to moment, because he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, because he’s losing his mind. Films that are about a character’s psychology, rather than narrative plot, tend to be slow because by nature they have to be introspective. This is the opposite of that. This is edge-of-the-seat gripping, because this is a manic spiral, and every moment for the character feels like a heart attack.

Teeth-grindingly tense film.

Dreams on Fire

Dreams on Fire follows a young girl as she leaves her strict and sheltered home in the countryside to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer in the big city. Her journey takes her through the various dance subcultures of Tokyo, from contemporary and tap, to headbanging to heavy metal, to R&B and urban freestyle, to voguing, drag and ballroom, to go-go dancing in a S&M club. It is so interesting, and just a whistle-stop tour through the kaleidoscopic Tokyo nightlife.

The main character goes from a very naïve young girl, to a practiced, versatile dancer influenced by this eclectic mix of styles. She finds out that she needs more the just talent to make it, she needs savvy, she needs to build her brand, and know how to sell herself on social media and in person. She needs to learn how to take rejection after rejection, and preserve. Making it as a dancer is a marathon, not a sprint.

She makes lots of friends who help her on her way, but you really do feel for her, because she has such ambition and nothing comes easily to her. You watch her struggle and pray she doesn’t lose hope.

Really a beautiful film whose cinematography really captures the wonder with which its main character sees the city, and showcases the creativity of its people, and variety of its culture. Just gorgeous.

If you like this…

A Brixton Tale

A guy gets a white girlfriend and everything turns to shit. A Brixton Tale is about Leah and Benji, teenagers from opposite sides of the city, who meet and begin a relationship. But the pressures of racism and class are present from the very beginning and threaten doom.

I spent the whole of this film waiting for disaster, from the very first shots you see exactly where this is going. Several of the other characters do to, and try to warn Benji, but all to no avail. It’s like slowly falling down a spiral staircase, and hitting the occasional landing hoping you’ve passed the worst, only to keep on reeling downwards.

Leah from the first is shown to have an objectifying gaze and be motivated by her own self-interest. She’s a white, middle-class lassie who wants to be a filmmaker, and she decides to film a ‘gritty’ subject by slumming it in Brixton. There she meets Benji, who she is drawn to both as a subject and a lover. Benji is genuinely smitten with her, but to be honest, Leah doesn’t even see him really. She sees the racist stereotype in her head that she can exploit for her film.

She films Benji smoking a spliff, snorting cocaine, getting into a fight, getting nicked by the police, and getting the crap kicked out of him in a rival neighbourhood. What she fails to show in the film is she gave him the spliff, she gave him the cocaine, Benji was only defending her in a fight between her and her ex, and she’s the one who talked shit to the police, getting them nicked, then dropped off in a rival scheme, primed for a kicking. She is moulding Benji into the racist stereotype she wants, both for her film and for her rebellion statement lover.

The worst thing about this is, Benji wants to be that for her too. He becomes ashamed of being a nice boy who plays video games in his room with his mate and goes fishing, steers clear of trouble, and really isn’t that tough. He wants to be this hypermasculinised idea she has of him. It’s fucking awful to watch.

And you don’t need me to tell you where this is heading. She exhibits her work, to rounds of applause from the wealthy, white, middle-class, art intelligentsia, for its unflinching look at the reality of urban youth, a reality they crave and have created for a narrative too narrow to encompass the full humanity of others. The whole thing is a circlejerk of patronising paternalistic self-congratulation on exposing themselves to the exotic and other, disguised as awareness-raising. Boke.

Meanwhile Benji is devastated. Horrified at seeing himself through her eyes. He’s ashamed for his mum to see it. It depicts him as just a string of criminal behaviours, with no thought to consequence of making something like that public with an uncensored identity. The whole thing is a shitshow.

And this was the first landing upon which I fell, bruised and hoping I’d come to the end of my descent. But no, this is about the halfway point of the film, and things just get worse from there.

This film is very much a rebuttal to delusions of a post-race world, or a new Britain, or the classless society. It kinda reminds me a bit of Blood Brothers, because everything Leah and Benji do, they do together, but the repercussions are very, very different.

It’s always a question for me to what extent Leah knows what she’s doing to Benji’s life, and if she sincerely cares for him at all. I think it’s kinda worse if she does, because then she is literally just a cat with a can tied to her tail, barrelling into Benji’s life with no idea of the carnage she’s dragging with her. If she is consciously manipulating him, it takes away from the inevitability of this demise.

In their own way, both characters are hopelessly naïve, and blind to the powder keg they’re dancing on. There is a mutual mirror there of their own hopefulness about the connection that is stripped from them as things play out. And where they end up seems like where they were always going to end up.

If you like this…

Cowboys

Cowboys is about Joe riding off into the Montana wilderness with his dad to escape his transphobic mother who is determined to raise Joe as a girl. Steve Zahn radiates warmth as the kind of dad we all want, a man who has his kid’s back. Sasha Knight is excellent as Joe, giving a mature and nuanced performance beyond his years. Anne Dowd is, as always, a consummate gem as the empathetic cop on their trail, just wanting to see everyone safe and sound without taking one side or another. And Jillian Bell plays the self-involved mother who can’t see her kid for the the daughter that she wanted to dress up like a doll in matching outfits.

It’s hard because obviously the mother is the least sympathetic of the bunch. She seems jealous of her husband’s love for his kid, and resentful of their child’s draw on his attention. She turns every conversation back to being about her, and makes out that even Joe being trans is somehow a spiteful rejection, as if he has rejected her motherly bond down even to rejecting her gender.

But she is not simply vilified. She talks about how her husband gets to be ‘the cool dad’ while she has to be the disciplinarian, she has to raise their kid, and keep house, and bring in money, and pay bills, and be the miserable, responsible one. “Who would chose to be a girl?” she asks. No one would volunteer to take the second-class option out of the choice of genders. Which, yeah, has its own logic to it. Except women who reject their second-class status have for generations become feminists, and the only people who transition are trans men.

I know I criticise a lot of movies for making being trans the central problem of the story, but Cowboys very much feels like transphobia is the central problem of the story. Joe’s mum, not Joe, is the one with the problem, she is the cause of the issue that sparks the journey and sets off the tale. It’s not really Joe’s arc that is the resolution of the film, it is his mother’s experience of being without her child that makes her realise just how lucky she was to have Joe, and to let go of the things that were driving him away. Nothing is mentioned about Joe’s transition medically or bodily. It is utterly irrelevant to the point. This film is about accepting the people we love for who they are.

If you liked this…

Wildland

A seventeen year old girl loses her mum in a car crash and is sent to live with her aunt’s family, a bunch of gangsters. The main character Ida has to decide whether she will chose her newfound family over the right and wrongs of their nefarious dealings.

You get the feeling that Ida’s previous life was one of loneliness, that her mother was an addict and there was a lot of neglect. Her aunt’s house is full of kisses and cuddles, and chit-chat and banter, and everyone round the table for breakfast. Whatever the criminal aspects, it’s more wholesome than she’s ever had before. You can tell she really craves that mother-daughter bond. But how far will she go to belong?

If you like this…

Gagarine

In 1963 the Gagarine housing estate was opened in Ivry, France. Named after the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who attended its opening. It was a building of the future, in an era of optimism where the possibilities seemed endless.

Now in the 21st century, the estate has been subject to deliberate underfunding and decline, and is slated for demolition. It is seen as out-dated, no longer meeting the needs of its inhabitants. Its modernist-brutalist architecture has fallen out of vogue, and would be considered an eyesore by today’s standards. The future it was built for has become a place of impoverishment, gentrification, displacement and disillusionment. It is a place of unfulfilled promises.

But not for Yuri, the main character in the film Gagarine. Named after Yuri Gagarin, just like his home, he is a believer. He tries against the odds to keep his community going, carrying out building repairs with his sharp engineering mind, hard work and creativity. He does everything he can to help and improve the lives of people there.

You see Gagarine through Yuri’s eyes, not as an ugly old high-rise, but as a world of intricate design, fascinating structure, and imbued with the warmth of the people it carries. The cinematography in this is just gorgeous, evoking through the architecture of this building the science fiction of the 60s. The lines of doors along the neon lit corridors are transformed into a sight as awesome as the interior of the spaceship, lined with hatches, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Everything is made new and fresh in Yuri’s eyes. Everything seems taken for granted as a commonplace miracle. His is a world full of wonder.

And that’s the word I’d use to characterise this film – wonder. If you want to see something that will make you come alive again to the awes all around you, the night sky, the interlocking homes of a neighbourhood, the tenderness of hopeful imagination, this is the film to see.

Limbo

What a fucking great movie! I laughed until my vision greyed. My favourite film of the festival so far. I highly recommend you take the chance to see this.

Just perfect. The dry, dead-pan comedy is just dead on, combining the asylum process’s Kafkaesque absurdity with the dark Scottish sense of humour. At one point the main character and all his mates are gathered around the only phone box on the island, everybody wearing those shit clear plastic ponchos while smoking a fag, and his mate, looking down at his mobile, is like, “There was a better signal in the middle of the Mediterranean.” There is nothing more Scottish than complaining about Scotland. Staying here and hating it is all there is to it.

Even the wee neds doing donuts on the beach, rock up to him and go, “Don’t blow up shite or rape anyone, right? Right, you want a lift back up to town pal?” As my pal once said, Scotland: Simultaneously the angriest and friendliest place.

Limbo is about Omar, a Syrian refugee and musician, parked on a Scottish island while awaiting the decision on his asylum application. Limbo describes the state of his fate, this hanging in the balance, neither one thing nor the other, but it also describes this place, this spit of land in the middle of buttfuck nowhere. Not terrible, but not great, it has this timeless quality in a way that seems to be both interminable and yet somehow also awe-inspiring. The rugged landscape, the raging sea, the mercurial sky. Limbo is also the state in which Omar finds his identity. Back home he was a well respected musician, here he is no one, and he cannot yet move on to build a new life, a new identity. At the same time, he is calling home to his parents, who are living as refugees in Turkey, and much is made of the bad blood between him and his brother, who has stayed in Syria to fight for the people. The brothers don’t speak, and yet his brother may be killed in the fighting at any time, and Omar may be deported to God knows what without warning. You’d think that would be enough to make them try to make peace, but their issues remain unresolved, as though ignoring it and suspending its discussion is preferable than a confrontation to bring it to its conclusion.

Every shot in this movie, every beat of silence and sound, every performance is just perfection. Loved every minute of it. Go see.

Sweetheart

Sweetheart is a coming-of-age first love story set in a crap British caravan resort. Reminded me of holidays at Southerness, enjoying it so much I’d hide in my bedroom wardrobe reading pick-you-own-adventure books.

In some ways Sweetheart is like a 21st century British John Hughes film, about one life-changing summer. There’s something so timelessly naive and disarming about it.