Friday 30 September 2016


A big hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Under the Shadow is director Babak Anvari's debut feature film, drawing on his childhood experiences in Tehran for this claustrophobic tale of a mother trying to protect her daughter from a malevolent danger.

When Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is rejected from continuing her studies to become a doctor due to accusations against her, she retreats to her apartment building home with her husband and daughter, Dorsa. When her husband has to leave the city for work, she is left to care for Dorsa alone, who has begun to see strange things around the apartment and speaks of a Djinn; a malevolent spirit that is plaguing her.

Set during the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s in a time of great social upheaval, the first half of the film is less about scares and more about keeping you on tenterhooks with the ominous threat, second guessing what it may show you next. However, as the film progresses it becomes clear that Under the Shadow is well aware of haunted house conventions and uses them for its benefit, playing with the audiences expectations.

Under threat of bombings at all times, almost the entirety of the film takes place within the apartment complex. It is Shideh's bunker (complete with taped up windows to protect from shattered glass), a place where she can feel safe and free from the oppression of having to cover her hair, and where she is able to watch her (forbidden) Jane Fonda workout videos.

Under the Shadow brings to mind recent horrors Insidious, It Follows, The Babadook and the best of the J-horror sub genre (Dark Water, Ring, etc) in its ability to present its story within the framework of a basic family drama. The film is largely a two hander between Shideh and Dorsa, and has smart comparisons between the way Dorsa is being treated and corrupted by this force, and the regime that has almost overnight changed the way Shideh is seen within society. The subtext is clear and palpable.

The camera is kept close and fluid, and like Insidious it creates tension from the things you think you might have seen, with glimpses of obscure shapes around the room. Something as simple as a child's coat hanging from a hook proved particularly nail biting for me.

An extremely promising debut from director Babak Anvari; tense, claustrophobic and extremely unsettling, Under the Shadow is a nerve shredding experience that won't be easily forgotten.


Monday 26 September 2016


Now touring cinemas across the country is director Esther May Campbell's feature film debut, Light Years. When Rose leaves home in search of her absent mother (folk singer Beth Orton), her siblings leave the familiarity of their surroundings to try and track them both down and bring them home.

Expanded from Esther May Campbell's BAFTA winning short, this is a world where the children exist largely without adults. Beth Orton (best known as a folk singer who has occasionally collaborated with the Chemical Brothers) in her second big screen acting role, plays a character who exists as a spectre in the lives of her young children. They all know their mother is ill and that the cause of her issues may come into play in their lives as they get older, and although it would be unfair to categorise her as a bad parent, her illness has left an indelible mark on the lives and growth of her children. It's this fractious relationship that provides the backbone to the film, although the lack of clarity towards the direction of the film can prove frustrating to watch.

Shot by Zac Nicholson and Will Pugh, the film is a visual delight, with the drab greyness of an industrial estate representing adulthood clashing with the surrounding blooming countryside of childhood. There are moments when these two worlds collide for the young characters who have been forced into early adulthood by their parents, such as one scene on a motorway bridge that audibly expresses the thundering journey they are on, and another where teenager Ramona (Sophie Burton) finds young love as a train roars past. Rather than coming across as heavy handed or cod-philosophical, it's these moments of contrast that end up bringing the film to life, albeit fleetingly.

The most intriguing character in the film is a scrappy little kid on a bike called Levi, who appears to exist in a world that's somewhere between Harmony Korine's Gummo and This is England. On the periphery of the story but with a vocal romantic interest in youngest daughter Rose, when he inexplicably disappears from the narrative as the focus shifts onto Orton's character, his presence is sorely missed.

Light Years is a sleepy sunset of a film, and although there is an undeniably beautiful and lyrical quality within its photography, the visuals far surpass the performances and the family puzzle at the heart of the film is one that ultimately you may not care about seeing solved.


Monday 5 September 2016


When Karen Guthrie’s mother Ann suffered a debilitating stroke, she returned to her hometown of Largs on the Scottish coast to help care for her with the rest of her family, including her father who had moved out of the family home fifteen years earlier.
Delivered from the point of view of someone trying to make sense of her parents’ relationship, the narration from Guthrie is often raw and poetic. As she talks of how she returned home when “the doctors couldn’t put mum back together again”, it’s impossible not to empathise with her and feel her pain. As the incidences that have shaped her family (including her father’s decision to change his career and moved to Djibouti for work for ten years) are recounted, it reveals an untied family unit.
Karen’s father is a delightfully interesting figure; often cantankerous, always pre-occupied, sometimes shouting at the televised sport he enjoys watching. He returned to the family home fifteen years after separating from his wife, bringing with him a number of additional secrets (that I won’t reveal here) that shook the foundations of the family.A complicated man with a number of contradictions on display, he as it once traditional with grand expectations of what his sons should achieve (with the French Foreign Legion touted as a viable career path) and the architect of this modern arrangement that falls under the umbrella of his family.
Guthrie has documented her family for a number of years, so the film is able to flash back to earlier years before Ann's stroke  made her a near silent observer, to when she learnt about her husband's time abroad and his reasons for leaving the family home. She is visibly chagrined at having spent many years as the dutiful wife, just to see him pursue his personal desires, so perhaps it's some sort of recompense that he returned to act as a companion to Ann.
There's a number of fascinating characters within the family, and although this was clearly a cathartic exercise for Guthrie herself, under explored is the effect this unconventional family set up had on her siblings (including her brother Mark who was a member of the 90s Britpop outfit The Supernaturals).
What works is the overwhelming normality of the situation. There's no huge dramatic outbursts, no accounts of fights and accusations. This is a family existing in the wake of revelations that could tear apart many families, and the entire bizarre tale is told with a great dignity. As Guthrie reveals every twist and turn of this unconventional set up, it's an honest and often raw portrait.
With echoes of Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, The Closer We Get is a very personal account of family life, and an often heartbreaking, deeply affecting story.


Thursday 1 September 2016


Re-released as part of the Roald Dahl On Film season that celebrates the centenary of his birth, a special "Scratch 'n Sniff" version of Matilda is now touring cinemas.

I'll be honest that I've always been sceptical of this sort of 'stunt cinema'. I blame it on too many dodgy 3D films spoiling what could have been a pure cinema experience and a level of old man apathy. But on a quiet Bank Holiday Monday with a film that I already know I like, why not give something new a try?

Using a card with ten differently scented circles on it to scratch off throughout the film and a somewhat rudimentary process where a member of the cinema team sits at the front of the screen and shines a torch at the appropriate point of the film, we got to discover the delights of fresh pancakes and fish paste accompanied by the delighted chatter of little voices eager to take part.

Scratch 'n Sniff Cinema have previously created screenings for The Wicker Man and The Goonies, but this is by far the biggest film they have done to date. The often gross and gloopy works of Roald Dahl fit this medium extremely well, and DeVito's film is not only a delight to see on the big screen, but the ideal adaptation to undergo such a process. It's a curious array of scents with an unmistakable synthetic funk filling the cinema screen as they all got scratched away, and although there's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief needed to fully immerse yourself in the fragrances, the whole experience made for a wonderfully fun and smelly time.

Engaging young audiences with cinema is an incredibly important thing to do to, and this certainly did that. Captivating the young and old members of the audience alike, this newly scented version of Matilda is a family favourite made more fragrant.

If you're interesting in joining seeing where Matilda is showing next, visit the Film Hub Wales website, or for more information about all of the Roald Dahl centenary celebrations, visit