Monstrus Circus

Directed by Jordan Inconstant

France / 2019 / 29 mins

What makes a monster, and what makes the man? This is an ancient artistic trope which finds itself in a variety of art, literature and media, perhaps nowhere quite like the circus. Winner of five Gold Movie AwardsMonstrus Circus takes this trope and brings it to the Highlands of Scotland to blend an archaic story-telling narrative with unique visuals, stylistic camera work and sublime colour use.

Leonard, a magician, has the idea to set-up a circus of freaks in Scotland. Together with clown Auguste (who is portrayed by director Jordan Inconstant) the band of hypnotists, strong-men and vampiric opera singers make for just beside Loch Ness. Unable to see the beauty in others, Edgar Finnigan (Louis Donval) finds himself at the raw-end of Leonard’s magic. This modern fantasy fuses traditional moral lessons with a contemporary message of acceptance.

In a way their feature-length counterparts often shy from, short films are pre-eminent in their experimentation. While Jordan Inconstant’s direction stays reasonably safe with narrative, the team find plenty to play with in terms of visuals, cinematography and Sylvain Ott’s musical composition. The interior shots take place in France, including warm set dressing alluding to classic fantasy, while exterior shots take place in Scotland, notably on the Isle of Skye. Upon seeing The Old Man of Storr, Inconstant captures Scotland in a manner only those with a profound love for the country are able.

With drone footage, which offers the wide, sweeping shots desirable to showcase the landscape, they achieve a tremendous accomplishment. Given the unreliability of weather, Monstrus Circus brings a calmness to the climate of Skye. The excitement in visuals lies in the framework for shots, with the odd Dutch angle sneaking into the film. A variety of shots are played with, knowing where to draw focus or distort our perception.

How can we identify a distinctively French creative team behind a production? Just look at the colour palette. Monstrus Circus, above all, is a mesmerically charming piece to watch, chiefly down to its triatic colour design which emphasises distinctive tones against the tempered (though striking) Scottish landscape. It causes the fluorescent yellows of the circus tent to leap out against the broad strokes of black waters of the loch. In truth, it rings of Goddard’s Contempt (1963) or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (2001), saturating the screen to an extent, without straying into garish.

Especially with Jeunet, Monstrus Circus finds itself firmly in the fantastical genre of film making. While this reinforces both the plot and colour scheme, it also lends itself to the visuals which comprise scrupulous VFX shots, putting large-scale productions to shame. There is indeed the odd snippet where we can see the technology behind the magic, but for the most part, a tremendous level of proficiency is at work for the special effects. The transformation of the base of Castle DunBroch into the circus tent is so skillfully done, for example, that the resulting illusion is just as impressive as the majestic castle itself.

When entering the fantastical, any effects need a tangible reality. With reliance on graphics for contemporary fairy-tales and science fiction, the uncanny valley draws too close. Monstrus Circus, however, finds that sublime balance between necessary computer visuals and special-effects make-up. Characters’ freakish forms, chiefly made-up of seven hours worth of make-up, showcase how dedication, ingenuity and a working relationship with computer effects can heighten the overall intent.

Our Auld Alliance is alive and breathing; with a distinctive French heart amidst the Scottish visage, it is a union of enchantment. Monstrus Circus is a testament to the experimental nature of short-filmmaking and how its creator’s talents know few boundaries – c’est magnifique!

Review originally published for Wee Review:

Eighth Grade – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed and Written by Bo Burnham

United States/ 2018/94 minutes

In the eighties, John Hughes was ruler supreme of the comedic coming-of-age drama. In the nineties, we took a shot at (loosely) adapting classic literature or gross-out humour in an attempt to capture teenage angst in middle-class America.

With social media’s talons reaching just around the corner into the Millenium, quite often we now turn to a discovery of ‘self’ at an earlier age for the recent coming-of-age narrative. Starting on YouTube, writer/director Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade has a confident helm. It tackles anxiety, consent and mental health for Generation Z, though you’ll find it communicates wider.

Kayla is your typical 13-year old. She struggles with fitting in, trying to emulate her favourite online stars and spends too much time focusing on how others identify her. Eighth Grade has a simple premise, something it shares with the better coming of age dramas. We’re merely taken on a journey as Kayla moves into high school, encountering social media-anxiety, popularity, mental health and the concerns of consent.

Never has it been easier to identify with an American pre-teen girl, a sentence I thought I would only say once this week. There’s buzz circulating Elsie Fisher, upon watching Eighth Grade there’s little wonder why. Earning her a nomination for best-supporting actress in a musical or comedy at the Golden Globes, Fisher is what makes this film. Wholly natural in performance, she doesn’t allow the melodrama to phase her. Every minor issue in her life we can relate too, and vitally, her response. The searing agony she captures without over-stating the emotion is tremendous.

Capturing authenticity poses a danger to your narrative because reality can be dull. Burnum achieves balance for the most part, though the film finds itself dipping into exaggeration drama than that of a comedy. Which, for the most part, only peaks in the latter half of the film. Any scene with awkward-father of the year Josh Hamilton is where comedy peaks. Hamilton’s performance makes you want to call home and apologise for being a little shit growing up. The chemistry he and Fisher share is heartwarming, the two complimenting the other’s performance.

Owing to his time on YouTube, Burnham has experience in providing an excruciatingly accurate depiction of self-gratification in an image-driven pursuit of identity. From the subtle to the obvious, the film has an aesthetic similar to Hughes but finds its own identity in placing snippets of authenticity alongside basis. As Kayla pushes her viewers to be comfortable with their bodies, we see her own discomforts in the background.

As Burnham’s featural directorial debut, it shows, though not necessarily in a negative way. Sticking to the traditional three-act structure of set-up, conflict and eventual payoff/happy ending, it’s a clean, neat story which doesn’t take too many risks. It adheres closely to the safe territory in places, particularly with one-note love interests and predictable happy-endings. Where Burnham pushes a grittier turn has a significant effect due to its contrast with the mundane nature of life. These sinister turns, while fleeting, work well with Anna Meredith’s deep bass electronic soundtrack.

Burnham’s outing shows great promise for more, as does Fisher’s performance. Where the film plays itself by the books, it’s following the footsteps of game-changers. Where it decides to find its identity, it succeeds. The authenticity of Eighth Grade will ring true for a generation or two. It’s awkward, downright cringy relatability hits close to the bone. It sits as a fitting tribute to coming of age stories from the past, captures excruciatingly accurate depictions of anxiety to captivate us.

Review originally published for Wee Review:

Downs With Love – Assembly Roxy

Written by Suzanne Loftus

Photo Credit to Alan Peebles

Downs With Love is a frank, open conversation about the way we look at the capabilities, emotions and safeguarding of those with Down’s Syndrome; specifically, in the contexts of relationships. Abi Brydon plays a young woman named Beth. Beth is vivacious, independent and has intense happiness for life most of us would envy. Yet, she cannot even make a cup of tea without being asked: “Can you do that yourself?”

Her new support worker Tracy (Katy Milne) encourages Beth to venture outside more. Though fully capable of catering to her own day-to-day needs, Beth finds it challenging to engage in a world which has previously shown nothing but bullying and ridicule. On an outing to the pub, Beth makes a passing comment of a ‘special someone’ – a musician called Mark. She has a crush, yet so do Mark and Tracy. The two begin a relationship – hiding it from Beth – stating that while uncomfortable, it’s the best thing for her.

Following their successful Fringe run in 2017, Cutting Edge Theatre was awarded a People’s Project grant.This not only allowed for a touring production, but has also given then the opportunity of a wider audience and the chance to connect further with those living with learning disabilities. Suzanne Lofthus’s script is less designed to push the audience’s acceptance of Down’s and more concerned about questions of love, relationships and what we consider ‘acceptable’.

Brydon holds her own while onstage, with her performance given the respect deserving of a passionate performer. She captures the frustrations we all feel when we’re doubted, made to feel we aren’t capable of achieving anything. Working with writer and director Lofthus, she and Brydon base the character of Beth on many of Brydon’s own experiences growing up with Down’s Syndrome. Downs With Love documents the bullying, disappointments and fight to be acknowledged that Brydon herself has faced. Her closing monologue, which the entire production has been building towards, is a sublime, hard-hitting speech that encourages the audience to confront their own apprehensions around people like her.

Brydon wants to communicate her tires and frustrations with the odd glances and cruel words. More though, she addresses the issue of love and disability, an issue which causes unease in people. That there is no reason for her not to seek love and connection. One question she challenges us with is whether would we feel uncomfortable if someone with Down’s was to date someone without the condition? It’s a question Stephen Arthur’s character Mark has put to him, handling the subject in an admirable, if glossed over, manner.

Serving as the audience’s representative, so to speak, Milne and Arthur together offer natural and realistic individuals. Their decisions to not speak with Beth upfront, to pander to her emotions and frequently question Beth’s capabilities feel uncomfortably familiar. It’s an entirely human response to act overbearing when we don’t fully understand someone.

The choreography, while not entirely necessary, serves a clear theme of repetition and schedule. Scenes are dedicated to Beth’s insistence on routine; bathing, brushing her teeth, going to college, which all indicate a passage of time in the production. Gradually, the group movements evolve as Katie and Mark begin to grow closer, flirting and touching. Here movement plays a role, communicating the isolation Beth is reliving as the pair focus on themselves and not her.

Anyone with relatives or friends who have Down’s Syndrome will recognise the creativity in Downs With Love. A tremendous amount of feeling has been put into this production, by Brydon herself more than anyone. It wears its heart on its sleeve, taking chances but refraining from pushing its audience too far into uneasiness. An emotional piece, Downs With Love rightfully deserves its funding to reach a wider audience

Review originally published for Wee Review

Production touring: