Friday 29 October 2010

Burke and Hare review (

There are a lot of things about this Edinburgh-set, comedy-horror period piece that don’t work. It isn’t at all scary, which puts paid to the ‘horror’ tag; it tends to favour humour of the man-falling-down-some-stairs variety as opposed to anything remotely sophisticated, and it contains at least one of the worst ‘Scottish’ accents ever delivered (congratulations to Isla Fisher on that achievement). But despite these and many other flaws, Burke and Hare is a film that’s hard not to like, imbued as it is by American director John Landis with a charm and naivety that belies its rather grotesque subject matter. I’m sure that it bears about as close a resemblance to factual history as Life of Brian, but in its best (admittedly few) scenes Landis captures a comedic tone that’s not a million miles from what the Pythons achieved in their heyday.

Landis was responsible for some of the most memorable American comedies of the 80s, including The Blues Brothers and Trading Places, both of which hinged on a central double-act (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi and Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy respectively) for their success. In Burke and Hare Landis has Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, both clearly enjoying themselves as the titular Irish entrepreneurs. The pair are penniless hucksters when we first meet them on the beautifully recreated streets of 19th Century Edinburgh, but they end up literally making a killing by stumbling upon a new line of business, providing fresh cadavers for the groundbreaking research of scientist Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson), whose previous source of fresh dead has been usurped by his powerful rival, Dr. Monroe (Tim Curry).

Pegg and Serkis easily hold the audience’s attention and sympathies – most impressive, considering the amount of cold-blooded murdering they do – but the film’s script doesn’t offer them much in the way of depth or decent gags to get their teeth into. In fact, most of the film’s weaknesses can be traced back to its script, the work of St. Trinian’s writers Nick Moorcroft and Piers Ashworth. The central romance, between Burke (Pegg) and Ginny (Fisher) is a case in point; the development of their relationship is non-existent, dramatically speaking, and as a character Ginny is largely unappealing and conceited. But Pegg and Fisher (awful accent notwithstanding) are both so charming and likeable that we believe in their romance, in spite of the lame dialogue.

The film is at its best when Landis makes his boldest tonal decisions, foregrounding the absurd comedy of a hanging scene, for example. But he is less confident when handling the script’s attempts at seriousness; an awkward subplot invites unfavourable comparisons to Shakespeare, and a number of scenes failingly attempt to ask questions about the morality of scientific study. There are some interesting ideas floated, but none are followed through with anything like the necessary conviction to make an impact. On the other hand, a scene featuring The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse falling down some stairs is hilarious, so I’m not going to complain too much.


Burke and Hare is out now. This review first published on

Thursday 21 October 2010

Festival Focus: Document 8 and Africa In Motion (The List, Issue 669)

The term ‘Human Rights Cinema’, with its implication of heavy political issues and intense subjects, may sound too much like hard work for the average cinemagoer. But for the last seven years Document, the Glasgow-based International Human Rights Film Festival, has been demonstrating that films about human rights simply means films about people like you and me. Begun in 2003 with a focus on the lives of Glasgow asylum-seekers, Document’s reach and scope has widened with each successive year.

This year’s opening film is Aisheen: Still Alive in Gaza, a gently powerful portrait of contemporary life in post-invasion Gaza that offers a very effective introduction to the type of film’s Document showcases. The film focuses on one of the biggest political arguments in our world, but from the perspectives of ordinary people caught in the middle of it, showing how precarious life is amidst the devastation. But Aisheen is no angry polemic; Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff observes, mainly through focusing on young people, how life continues in a community where basic human rights have been denied. The film is troubling and uplifting in equal measures: one boy says, “the conditions are not right for learning… we’ve given up dreams”, but just as affectingly, Wadimoff shows us the burgeoning rap group choosing words as their weapons, and attempting to bring some hope and inspiration to Gaza with their music.

Another key film in this year’s programme is Bloody Sunday: A Derry Diary (pictured), a remarkable first-hand account that follows the almost 40-year journey from the Derry massacre in 1972 to the long-delayed conclusion of the Bloody Sunday Enquiry earlier this year. Filmmaker Margo Harkin, who was an eyewitness to the devastating events and gave evidence in the tribunal, has assembled a film of incredible power that, through the measured accounts of each contributor, not only delivers a defiant shout in the face of injustice, but also offers a message of hope to anyone who fights for a human cause to be heard.

Other highlights amongst the festival’s 95 documentaries are The Fear Factory, a clear-eyed appraisal of the UK’s failing Youth Justice System, The Silver Fez, a hugely entertaining account of a penniless African musician aiming for glory and The Shutdown, Alan Bissett and Adam Stafford’s award-winning short about young life in the shadow of Grangemouth. Document 8 Programmer Neill Patton says, “we’re not here to tell people what to do, we just want to let people see what’s going on in the world.”

While Document is happening in Glasgow, the Africa in Motion Film Festival will be celebrating its fifth anniversary in Edinburgh, showing over 70 films drawn from 28 African countries. This year the theme of the festival is ‘celebrations’, and Festival Director Lizelle Bisschoff says “first and foremost it’s an arts festival, celebrating brilliant African films, and that’s more important to us than any issue-based or ‘worthy’ approaches to representing Africa.” That’s a statement that’s borne out in the programme, with highlights including the opening film, Sex, Okra and Salted Butter, from Cannes award-winner Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, a selection of music and dance-themed documentaries from across the continent and a special children’s workshop with Kenyan animator Alfred Muchilwa, lead animator on CBeebies’ Tinga Tinga Tales.

Document 8 Human Rights Film Festival, CCA, Glasgow Tue 26-Sun 31 Oct. Africa in Motion Film Festival, Filmhouse, Edinburgh Thurs 21 Oct-Fri 5 Nov. 
A shorter version of this feature was first published in The List magazine.

Friday 1 October 2010

Buried review (

In which Ryan ‘The Proposal’ Reynolds wakes up to find himself buried alive in a coffin, and we the audience are in there with him. For each and every one of the film’s 94 minutes. After some great Saul Bass-inspired opening credits, debut director Rodrigo Cortés starts as he means to go on, with the screen remaining uncomfortably black for what feels like forever until the flicker of a zippo lighter introduces us to Paul Conroy (Reynolds), bound and gagged and, understandably, a little shaken up on finding himself buried in a box. Quickly discovering that his captors have left him an Arabic-language mobile phone, Conroy starts making some panicked calls to try and figure out who put him there, and how the hell he’s going to get out.

To call this film audacious would be putting it lightly. Cortés and writer Chris Sparling push the concept of one single claustrophobic location to its absolute limit, but this isn’t an attempt at documentary-style reality. Incredibly creative camerawork from cinematographer Eduard Grau (also responsible for photographing last year’s A Single Man) continually breaks the ‘real’ boundaries of the coffin, while intense editing and some huge dramatic music cues keep the tension building as we hang on to discover Conroy’s ultimate fate.

One of the film’s great strengths is that Sparling’s script doesn’t pull any punches with the scenario; there are no last-minute twists or reveals, Conroy really is buried in a box in the middle of the desert. And while Sparling has points to make about the loss of the value of the individual in our corporation/nation-prioritising world, director Cortés ensures that the message comes across in a way that’s hard-hitting but not heavy-handed; the themes are always subordinate to the telling of this specific story.

It all hinges on Reynolds, and the actor better known for his rom-com roles totally delivers what’s needed, his committed performance ensuring that the believability of his predicament remains constant. Buried represents a further sign that Reynolds is interested in more than just playing it safe with his choices – his turn in 2007’s The Nines was an equally interesting diversion from the mainstream. A few more like this and a few less He’s Just Not That Into You’s wouldn’t hurt his standing one bit. Maybe Tarantino could give him a call?


Buried is out now. This review first published on