Review: Balloon Animal at Manchester Film Festival

As a child I used to marvel at the concept and sheer artistry of those who could transform balloon into beast (ridiculous but alliteration, I can’t not).

Even more so when I tried to do it myself not realising that a special type of balloon can only be used, and concluding that only those touched by magic can perform such activity.

Showing as part of this year’s Manchester Film Festival, Balloon Animal is a brilliant name for a film. It suggests a metaphor, a hidden meaning, a deep dive into the psyche of a named character.

I mean I’m sure we can make that happen but what I love is that producer and lead actor, Katherine Waddell, had this artistic vision of a blue haired girl making a balloon animal. Literally just that. And it all came from there. As someone who always used to draw people with blue hair when she was little, I’m all for that.

Katherine is a co-founder of First Bloom Films along with award-winning writer and director Em Johnson.

The two friends came together to make what I thought was a charmingly brilliant film, in only 12 days.

The tagline of the film is “A young circus performer (Poppy played Katherine Waddell), stuck under the harsh rules of her father (Dark played by Ilia Volok)and community expectations, finds herself captivated by small-town America, forcing her to question everything.”

I prepared myself for an abusive father, dark themes, trouble abound in the big tent but it was more…gentle. Calm, even. I think I watch too much American Horror Story (fun fact, a lot of the circus scenery and props was provided by the same company who supplied them for AHS Freak Show).

The breakfast scene as they both navigate the bitter grapefruit served up by Dark is funny and touching and, revealed by Em, Katherine and Ilia at the post-screening Q&A, largely ad-libbed.

We join the pair as another circus season draws to a close, and discussions ensue as to where the next stop should be. Meanwhile Poppy persuades fellow circus performers and friends, Lala (Danielle Baez) and Sadie (Erin Rae Li), to head out one night to see what the small town has to offer in terms of nightlife. The answer is not a great deal but they find fun (and alcohol) in a local bar and fast food in the diner afterwards. It is there that Poppy runs into local, Drew ( Michael David Wilson) who she previously encountered on a petrol forecourt.

Meeting Drew has clearly awakened something in her and she is keen to go when he invites the three to a gathering at his home later that week.

I have to say, the scenes with the three girls were some of my favourite. Funny, sharp dialogue portraying a genuine friendship and shared understanding of the trials and tribulations of circus life, the group’s dialogue and interactions lit up the screen.

Similarly, there is a tenderness in the two-hander scenes between Poppy and Drew and not to give the game away, any tension that she is walking into a trap is quickly tempered.

Treated to thoughts from Katherine and Em after the screening, they talked about what I thought was a wonderful and charming cinematographic approach where the traditional (and expected) aesthetic is turned on its head. Opening scenes aside, the circus is often shot with muted colours and lighting, whereas Poppy’s interactions in the ‘outside world’ are colourful and bold. Her circus life coming with a constant backdrop of music, bright lights and magic, Poppy sees this more in the seemingly ordinary and to some, mundane. The film’s strength lies in that empathy with the character is strong and the film-goer starts to quickly see life through their lens.

And it would be easy for there to be this big, bad situation in the protagonist’s life to bring the viewer right on board, triggering us all into rooting for our ‘hero’. This story is more subtle, layered. We don’t require big, brash themes and dramatic story arcs to understand this character’s wants and needs.

Freedom is a subjective concept, happiness can be induced by many and varied external factors. For some it’s bright lights and make-up. For others it’s a motel room with a working television and a side of independence and adventure.

In summary, if the lead actress of a film has a balloon-animal making hand double, you make a point of watching that film. It’s only right.

But also because it’s captivating and deserves to be seen.

For details of future screenings, follow the film on Instagram.

And here’s a little amuse bouche of a trailer for you Balloon Animal.

You can read more about the film here on the official website for Manchester Film Festival.

Katherine Waddell was also named Best Actress in the end of festival’s awards. Huge congrats to Katherine!


Review: Spaghetti Junction at Manchester Film Festival

There’s a rich history of films centred around the ‘stranger visits town’ trope. Sometimes that trope is literal; a mainstay for many a Western. Sometimes, that stranger is coming from somewhat further afield, swapping out a small town for Earth itself.

Starman, Superman, E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind – the list is pretty much endless. I hope you forgive that my particular list is a little (ok, a lot) steeped in 70/80s film culture.

As an adult, having told myself for some time now that ‘I’m not really a fan of sci-fi’ or ‘fantasy’, I have realised that not only am I doing myself a disservice, but absolutely the genres too, pigeon-holing them to the extreme. Actually conflating them too.

Sat on the sofa scrolling through a subsciption service we’ll call Fletnix, I perhaps would have dismissed such a film as fantasy/sci-fi and so not one for me. What a silly fool. A good film-maker rarely follows a formula, and will always take the viewer on a journey layering genre upon genre, the narrative, no matter the ‘theme’, steeped in aspects that one will always find a relevance in if the mind is open.

And that is why film festivals are flipping fantastic. Such is the fight for our attention given the easy, instant and wide scope of entertainment at our finger tips, it’s no wonder that the more choice there is, the more we stick to what we tell ourselves we like. With events such as Manchester Film Festival, we have carefully curated programmes which aim to bring new talent, new stories and new challenges to our often long-held blinkered beliefs of what we will and what we won’t enjoy.

Sometimes it’s time to step away from the usual, and take a trip into the fantastical.

And so to Spaghetti Junction (US), the feature film debut of filmmaker Kirby McClure, and making its UK premiere as part of the Manchester Film Festival (https://honorarymancblog.com/2022/03/12/manchester-film-festival-2022/).

The film tells the story of 16 year old August (Cate Hughes) , adjusting to life after a car crash took her leg, killed her mother, and left herself, sister Shiny (Eleanore Miechkowski) and their father (Cameron McHarg) to navigate through their new normal.

And at this point I want to say kudos for the portrayal of a dad who has been left alone to raise his children, not going down what is often the lazy, two-dimensional route of a (circle as appropriate) strict/violent/lazy/neglectful/unloving/abusive father figure.

Pause for applause.

When one night August sees a flash in the sky. she begins having strange dreams where a glowing figure beckons her towards a cave. Upon awakening, she goes to investigate a cave near her house— and inside she finds a strange and injured boy, ‘The Traveller’ (Tyler Rainey), who claims to have supernatural origins (meanwhile, whose likeness is concurrently being reported in the local paper as a missing teen).

As older sister Shiny is shown forging her way through a rebellious teenage life, making plans with her stoner boyfriend (Jesse Gallegos) to leave their sleepy hometown outside Georgia, Atlanta, August unexpectedly becomes the one who embarks on a journey of her own, both physically and spiritually; helping to find a map back to the Traveller’s own world in the universe, whilst finding an inner peace in her own.

The cinematography provides a tale of two halves. There is a jarring yet pleasing juxtaposition of loud, noisy, angry scenes of the concrete maze that is Spaghetti Junction; a real life ‘crisscrossing where freeways interweave’ (think Mancunian Way, but more exotic), and the ethereal, dreamlike sequences of nature, universe, countryside and fauna against an atmospheric musical score.

The contrast between dark and light and long held shots of the night-sky are successful in providing something of an immersive experience, ramping up the tension and empathy as August struggles to work out what is real, what is not and what it all means for her.

The film left me with some questions of my own unanswered but perhaps that’s the point. You can sit back and be told what to think (if only for the duration of the film), or you can bring your own theories and imagination to the party. Only then will you allow yourself to be taken to another world through the magic of cinema.

I’ll leave you hanging there, but for more details including a trailer and when/where you can view future screenings of Spaghetti Junction, visit https://spaghettijunctionfilm.com/

For the full programme of films being screened and having been screened in this year’s Manchester Film Festival, visit https://www.maniff.com/

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Cast and crew

About the Director: Kirby McClure is a filmmaker living in Atlanta, Georgia. His experimental short film “SWEAT” premiered at TIFF in 2014. His music video work for artists like Skrillex, Britney Spears and Yeasayer have been nominated for the MTV VMA as well as the UK MVA. He was featured in Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” and NY Mag’s “10 Directors to Watch”.

“Spaghetti Junction” is written & directed by Kirby McClure, executive produced by Georges Bermann (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Science of Sleep”), with an ominous and atmospheric score by HEALTH (“Max Payne,” “Grand Theft Auto”), and cinematography by Kristian Zuniga (Depeche Mode’s “Spirits In The Forest” and Sundance Film Festival premiere “Beast Beast”).

“Spaghetti Junction” stars Cate Hughes in her feature film debut, Tyler Rainey (“Mind, will and emotions,” “Flipped”), Cameron McHarg (“Pearl Harbor,” “Deer Season”), Jesse Gallegos (“Greyhound,” “The World Beyond”), Tiffany Larkin (“Lillian,” “Frost”), and Eleanore Miechkowski (“Arcana Six,” “More Than You Know”).

Manchester Film Festival 2022

This week was monumental. After what felt like a long, long dark winter, the sun set AFTER 6pm.

Today is also monumental as Manchester Film Festival 2022 throws open its literal and metaphorical doors to us Mancs, honorary and actual, and all those visiting our fine city. From 12 – 20 March, over 130 films will screen at Odeon Great Northern.

All films are making their mancunian screening debut, 74 will be making their UK premiere, with 27 making their world premiere.

Pretty exciting stuff, eh?

My heart continues to leap every time a Manchester event moves back offline and into the real world, and this is a real humdinger.

Festival Director, Neil Jeram-Croft, concurs…

After being forced online last year we’re really excited to be back 100% in person and in cinema at the fantastic Odeon Great Northern. We have our most expansive and diverse line-up of films ever, with award winners, world premieres and loads of local talent on display. Manchester Film Festival is back with its biggest edition ever!

Over the week, highlights include:

  • Winner of the Cannes Grand Prix award, Compartment Number 6 playing on Sunday 13 March, with psychological drama Nitram , winner of the Best Actor at Cannes, showing the day after on Monday 14 March
  • Winner of Best Film at the BFI London Film Festival, Hit the Road screens on Tuesday 15 March
  • Documentary Bisping: The Michael Bisping Story, about the Clitheroe born former UFC champion, has its UK premiere on Monday 14 March
  • The world premieres of UK films God’s Petting You a dark comedy about Brighton’s underworld, and documentary Spitfire: The Longest Flight, about a British pilot and his team attempting a world-first circumnavigation of Earth in an 80 year old vintage WII fighter.

North West filmmakers will also have their place in the spotlight with two sessions of shorts on Tuesday 15 March and Sunday 20 March.

Actual Manc, Natalie Kennedy, makes her feature directorial debut with Black Mirror-esque Blank, about a writer who enlists an A.I. to help with her writer’s block (Natalie, you have my attention…).

For full details of the line-up, visit https://www.maniff.com/maniff2022-official-selection

Check the trailer here…

Watch this wordpress space for muses and ‘reviewses’ from some of the features later in the week.

In the meantime, get to the front of the line and purchase your tickets HERE for £5 individually, £20 for a five-ticket bundle, £35 for a ten-ticket bundle of a full festival pass is £65. Incredible value.

So grab your popcorn, and don’t miss your opportunity to see some of the fine talent on offer, all on your doorstep.