Tuesday, 22 July 2014
To be honest, this is going to be quite a short review. I think Locke is a film best seen with as little prior knowledge as possible. So, all you need to know going into the film is this: late one evening, construction foreman Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) leaves a building site in Birmingham and starts to drive. Over the course of his journey- and several phone calls- Ivan's life starts to spiral out of control.
Hardy, despite a slightly comedic Welsh accent, gives a decent performance as a fundamentally decent man in a tough situation. He's the only actor on-screen throughout- the film is virtually all set in Ivan's car, making for a claustrophobic setting- and the anguish and frustration is writ large across his face. The camera is never far from his face, threatening to erupt as the emotions come to the surface.
Other decent performances in the film are Andrew Scott as Ivan's flustered colleague Donal (now given the responsibility for the concrete pour as Ivan has taken off) and Ruth Wilson as Ivan's wife Katrina. There's also a lovely and emotional turn by Olivia Colman and these performances are made all the more remarkable for being voice only.
The film clips along at a decent pace (it's almost real-time, covering the drive from Birmingham to London) and there's an almost Pinteresque quality to the writing, the seemingly banal conversations about football and concrete revealing hidden depths and hidden menace. The reduction of setting to the car and having all other performances as phonecalls could have come off as a gimmick but it works. Writer-director Steven Knight has created a gripping and absorbing drama which is well worth a watch.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Friday, 18 July 2014
When the marketing rolled out for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, I was ridiculously keen to go and watch it. A teenage drama filmed over twelve years where we see the same actor start off at age six and end up as an eighteen-year-old. I looked up the cinema times, raring to go, then I spotted the running time: 166 minutes. I’ve had many a rant with friends about films that go past the two-hour mark. Personally, I don’t see the need for it. If a narrative can’t be wrapped up in two hours then that’s a combination of lazy scriptwriting and indulgent direction. As much as I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises, it didn’t need to clock in at almost three hours. Avatar and the Transformers sequels definitely don’t warrant their excessive running time, and even Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King could have done with a trim here-and-there (Tolkien fans will argue Jackson simply transferred book-to-screen, but I’d argue that book and film are two different mediums for totally different audiences. Readers will happily flick through a book for several hours; cinema audiences aren’t so keen to be deprived of fresh air for that amount of time). There are a number of exceptions: The Godfather has such an intricate, hell of a punch narrative, you don’t notice how long it goes on for. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator feels like a fast-paced ninety-minute blockbuster, when it’s well over two hours long. Grudgingly, I went along to watch Boyhood, wondering how a film about growing hair in weird places, your voice changing, and staring at girls could be stretched out for virtually three hours.
When you stop and think about it, so much could go wrong with a project like Boyhood. You’re taking a massive gamble with a child actor, hoping he’s not going to turn out like Hayden Christensen. Also, there are plenty of coming of age dramas out there. While the filming of Boyhood is unlike any other, what can you say about adolescence that’s different to other entries in this sub genre?
There is so much going on in Linklater’s latest. It starts off simple enough; Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei) spend their time bickering, reading Harry Potter, collecting toys, and riding bikes. Their parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) are divorced; their mother struggling being a single parent whilst going back to college, while their father is a dreamer, obsessed with the Beatles and song writing, but can’t hold down a job. As Mason and Samantha get older things get more complicated, both for them and their parents. Mason and Samantha discover the opposite sex, drugs, alcohol, as well as wondering what they’re supposed to do with the rest of their lives. As for the grown ups, Arquette’s life goes from bad to worse, the men in her life all untrustworthy alcoholics, yet Hawke manages to turn his life around, working in a respectable job and has his own family.
What makes Boyhood such a hard-not-to-like three hours is Linklater’s script, and his observations of teenagers and parent/child relationships. I regularly had a smile on my face as I watched moments I recognised from growing up, while the couple sat next me laughed and glanced at each other as they had lived these same scenes with their own children. Boyhood is full of gentle, well thought out set pieces: Mason talks to his soon-to-be girlfriend for the first time, no flirting, no cheesy chat up lines, just two people being open and honest with each other; Hawke tries to have the birds and the bees chat with his children, struggling with what to say as he’s barely grown up himself; At a house party, Mason and his teenage friends talk about when and to who they lost their virginity, all too obvious that every one of them is lying.
Boyhood often feels like a polished documentary, so believable are the performances, both from the lead and supporting cast. Considering Ellar Coltrane has never acted before, and from an early age he has had to, on-and-off, play the same role for twelve years, he does a perfect job. His transformation from a shy boy obsessed with video games and fantasy novels, to being a mini version of his father, is skilful and understated. You notice his change through mannerisms and the way he talks to people, mirroring how Hawke behaved early on in the film, until he ends up being a gentle, charismatic young adult.
Ethan Hawke steals every scene as Mason Senior. When Hawke first arrives, he’s moved back from Alaska, having spent time there to write songs, rediscover himself (and not having much success with either). Mason Senior is naïve and irresponsible, a child in adult form. He also loves his children and wants to get to know them. During one of his fortnightly visits, he tells them, “I don’t want to be that dad who asks, “What have you been up to?” and his kids go, “Not much”.” He’s this energetic, stubbornly optimistic, fun guy to be around. You watch Boyhood almost wishing Hawke was your dad. One of many scenes that bring a smile to your face is when Mason Senior gives his son a CD he put together of the best songs John, Paul, George and Ringo came up with post-Beatles, what Hawke calls “The Black Album.” You can’t miss the irony that this is the closest Mason Senior has got to bringing out his own album. Like Coltrane’s transformation as he grows up, Hawke does the same, now this soft-talking, more relaxed man who can pass on advice to his son as he’s been through the things Mason is going through, most of it up until recently.
As a child, Lorelei Linklater provides most of the film’s laughs. We first see her annoying her little brother by singing and dancing to Britney Spears, having a quick answer for everything her mother tells her. What Richard Linklater wisely avoids with Samantha is that she’s not your stereotype obnoxious, annoying sister. Mason and Samantha squabble when they’re children, but they’re also the best of friends, which continues throughout Boyhood, Samantha growing up to be a smart, thoughtful young woman who is always on her brother’s side. Most of the critics’ praise has gone to Coltrane, but Lorelei Linklater is just as wonderful to watch.
Patricia Arquette once again gives another complex performance here as Mason and Samantha’s mother. She tells one of her many let downs for a boyfriend that she grew up having to look after her own mum, now she’s got kids of her own to look after; she’s never had the opportunities most people take for granted. She wants to better herself, going to college, dating men who, on first impressions seem smart, driven, trying to save up so she’s not always struggling for money. Life however, cruelly manages to find a way of dragging her right back to square one. You can’t fail to be moved at one scene towards the end of Boyhood, when Mason is moving out, a saddened Arquette asking her son just what has she got to show for her life. Mason’s answer comes straight from the heart of a son who loves his mother.
The songs Linklater has picked for his soundtrack are carefully used, not just reminding you what year the film has moved on to, but they’re all songs that were played endlessly on the radio, that most people will have heard and have some kind of attachment to. Opening to Coldplay’s Yellow, you get this sense of nostalgia, you instantly know where you were and what you were doing when that song was literally everywhere. There is no orchestral score in the film, instead Linklater dots Boyhood with songs that will stir up emotions in anyone who hears them: I danced to this song, I broke up to this song, I f**king hate this song!
Linklater gives us a few exceptions, more recent songs that, for most people won’t have that same attachment. For one of Boyhood’s closing scenes, Linklater chose Arcade Fire’s Deep Blue. On first hearing Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, Deep Blue doesn’t immediately stand out as a classic, so strong is their third album. When you partner it with this scene, it manages to sum up many of Boyhood’s themes: reminiscing on how great it was to be a child, and how frightening it is when you realise you’re an adult now, you have to go out into that crazy, scary, big wide world.
Boyhood ‘s 166 minutes occasionally meander. There are a handful of scenes that, you could argue, could have been cut (some of Coltrane’s pretentious teenage rants, while true-to-life, as his argument falls in on itself the more he goes on, don’t really need to be there), but Linklater’s script is heartfelt and insightful, it will make you laugh because you recognise these small, forgotten moments that are happening onscreen. Very few films are as charmingly honest as Boyhood.
4 out of 5
Friday, 4 July 2014
The Edinburgh International Film Festival. Just as chain smokers think about their next ciggie, I have a massive craving for all things film and TV, making Scotland’s capital my own personal Mecca. You get to brag about seeing cult hits before anyone else (Let the Right One In, (500) Days of Summer, The Conjuring, Killer Joe, Moon, Man on Wire, The Secret in their Eyes, V/H/S and Monsters all got their UK premiere up in Edinburgh) as well as getting to watch TV series before they’re officially aired (True Blood and Peaky Blinders being the two big successes on both sides of the pond). With the internet and social media always within arm’s reach, it’s rare that you’ll sit down at the cinema and not know the first thing about what you’re watching. This is one of the things that makes Edinburgh brilliant; you know you’re going to watch a comedy or a drama or a horror, and it might just have a big name star heading up the cast, but that’s it (a large number of films haven’t even been picked up by a distributor). When you take your seat and the lights go down, you have no idea what you are about to see. It’s a great feeling when the credits come up and you realise you’ve watched what could well be a future classic, the kind of film your mates talk about on a night out, everyone nodding in agreement. It’s a not-so-great feeling when you realise you’ve spent the last two hours watching something that’s been a waste of everyone’s time (Lawrence Gough’s Salvage is, by some Olympic-sized margin, the worst horror film I’ve seen at Edinburgh: badly written, not-at-all scary, plus it has some of the worst lighting I’ve seen in a film). On the plus side, you can take alcohol into most screenings. I tend to judge a film by how sober I am at the credits. If I am stone-cold sober then the film is worth a watch; if I spend more time waiting at the bar than being sat in my seat, it’s best to pretend that film never happened.
While I would have loved to be at the festival for the whole two weeks, unfortunately my wages don’t stretch that far; I was at Edinburgh from the 19th to the 25th June. Below are the frank, no-nonsense reviews for every film I watched during my week at the festival.
The Anomaly (UK/English dialogue/95 min)
Ryan Reeve (Noel Clarke), an ex-soldier struggling with post-traumatic stress, wakes in the back of a van with a boy, Alex, who has been tied up. Escaping, Ryan passes out only to wake up weeks later in a different place. Every ten minutes, this happens again and again…
To quote Clarke, The Anomaly, which he produced and directs, as well as stars in, is “A two-hundredth of the budget of The Matrix or Inception,” which its been compared to. Filming lasted for five weeks, shooting six days a week, and on their days off the actors came in to rehearse the fight scenes.
When you only have a small pot of money to turn a script into a film, it’s tempting to cut scenes so that you don’t go over-budget. Noel Clarke hasn’t done this, he’s taken Simon Lewis’s screenplay and doesn’t scrimp anywhere. The plot itself isn’t anything you haven’t already seen in dozens of science fiction films, and not all of it’s perfect (characters occasionally change their voices to sound like Brian Cox, which doesn’t make much sense) but it’s slickly and stylishly done.
Everyone involved does their job, acting-wise. Clarke playing a man who starts off frightened and bewildered, wondering what’s happening to him and whether any of this is real. As he works out what’s going on, he begins to play the bad guys at their own game, coming up with smart ways to wreck their plans. Ryan isn’t all that fleshed out, but you easily find yourself rooting for him. Ian Somerhalder (The Vampire Diaries, Lost) can play charming and sneering without breaking a sweat, and he does the same here. When the big plan is revealed, you can understand where he’s coming from, even if it is a crazed, Bond villain view of the world.
For a low budget film, the fight scenes are bone-crunchingly inventive. Rather than the shaky, close-up camerawork of The Raid films, which sometimes means that you miss parts of the action, Daniel Katznelson gives us smooth, slow-motion panning shots that let you appreciate the ambitious choreography. While the fights are unlikely to be mentioned in the same sentence as Fist of Fury, they are faultlessly shot and thrilling to watch each-and-every time.
Clarke’s latest, having previously directed Adulthood and co-directed 4,3,2,1, isn’t the most original film you’ll see all year, but The Anomaly is tense, impressively-made stuff. Looking forward to finding out what Clarke comes up with for his next big project.
3 out of 5
I Believe in Unicorns (USA/English dialogue/80 min)
Having looked after her sick mother for nearly all her life, Davina (Natalie Dyer) escapes to her daydreams of unicorns and fairy tales. She wakes up one day when she meets Sterling (Peter Vack), and the two of them begin a relationship. Davina and Sterling run away together, but on their road trip into nowhere, Davina soon realises that her boyfriend isn’t the soul mate she hoped for.
Leah Meyerhoff’s film looks remarkable throughout, often using dream sequences constructed from a mix of stop-motion animation and grainy, faded camerawork. We see the world as Davina sees it, occasionally breaking from this when Davina speaks to her mother, these scenes filmed in a jarring point-and-shoot fashion. As Davina discovers her boyfriend’s violent, hot-tempered side, the dream sequences become less and less frequent, Meyerhoff’s way of saying, “You can’t get away from the harsh realities of life.”
You can’t criticise the performances from the two leads. Dyer is gentle and naïve, becoming more hardened as the film goes on. When we first meet Sterling, he is intensely affectionate, with this devil-may-care attitude, but Vack gives us plenty of warning signs; if Davina says or does something he doesn’t like, his mood changes, he becomes angered. In an early scene, having slept with Davina, Sterling isn’t interested when they bump into each other. It’s only when Davina says she’ll sleep with him again that she gets Sterling’s attention. When Davina asks, “Is this forever?” Sterling changes the subject by telling her how beautiful she is.
The first half of I Believe in Unicorns is terrific, quickly whizzing by: girl meets boy and you know it’s not going to end well. Once the second half, the road movie, begins, the film meanders from one scene to the next. There are a handful of crucial moments, such as Sterling’s rages getting more-and-more violent, but there’s not enough here to justify the running time.
I Believe in Unicorns deserves praise for being one of the better teenage road movies out there. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is teeming with ideas, and Dyer and Vack are excellent as two teenagers both fractured in their own way. It’s a massive shame that the film can’t keep its inventiveness going for a full ninety minutes.
3 out of 5
Blind Dates (Georgia/Georgian dialogue with English subtitles/99 min)
Sandro (Andro Sakhvarelidze) is in his forties, a history teacher who is still single. He joins his friend, PE teacher Ivan (Archill Kikodze), on blind double-dates, but has never been all that bothered. Things change when he meets Manana (Ia Sukhitashvili), a married woman whose husband is about to be released from prison.
Levan Koguashvili’s film, while it’s a decent watch, feels more like a series of sketches. There’s no clear narrative and it’s not spoiling anything to say that Sandro and Ivan don’t really change as people. Sandro’s circumstances may have changed, but there’s not enough happening to warrant an hour-and-forty minutes.
Everybody does a good enough job, acting-wise. Sakhvarelidze doesn’t put a foot wrong as a man who is indifferent to everyone and everything, only resembling an animated, recognisable human being when he meets Sukhitashvili. When things begin to snowball out of control, Sakhvarelidze can also do an impressive bewildered expression. Kikodze gets most of the laughs when he shows up, egging his friend on, yet whenever he is alone with a woman he gets tongue-tied; he has no clue how to talk to women.
There are a number of scenes that will have you chuckling, the best of the lot being when Sandro is mistaken to be the father of a gypsy girl’s baby, the girl’s fiery grandmother ranting at him for well over a minute, never pausing for breath. Other highlights include Sandro and Ivan taking their dates to a nearby town because the weather’s supposed to be better. We then cut to them sat outside a seaside café, the rain pouring down, all of them sheltered underneath a plastic sheet, trying to have a conversation. Sandro’s parents, when they are on screen, are given plenty of one-liners, their pestering bordering on harassment, despairing of their son who still hasn’t moved out.
Blind Dates is passable as a bittersweet comedy, succeeding whenever it tries to be funny. You can’t complain about any of the performances, Koguashvili giving us what feels like a true-to-life look at Georgia and its people. Yet, with a comedy, there should be constant laughs, a minute/two minute gap at most. Blind Dates can go a good ten minutes before coming up with more offbeat humour.
3 out of 5
Castles in the Sky (UK/English dialogue/89 min)
Scottish engineer Robert Watson Watt is given the task of proving that his theory of radar is a useful weapon in Britain’s fight against the German Luftwaffe. Not only is Watt short on time and money, there are those in Whitehall looking to shut down his research.
Castles in the Sky is Downton Abbey does the Second World War. Cinematographer Alasdair Walker gives the film a polished sheen, but this isn’t your graphic war film (archive footage of Hitler and the Luftwaffe is all you’re shown). Instead, director Gillies MacKinnon gives us a tense, entertaining and frequently funny (in a uniquely British sense of the word) ninety minutes.
Eddie Izzard is the reason Castles in the Sky is a brilliant watch. He’s a massive talent both at stand-up and acting and he does the same thing again here. Izzard does an impressive job in portraying Watt. We see him first as this warm, charming man, bursting with a child-like energy. It’s not until ridiculous amounts of pressure and expectation are piled on Watt that we see him start to crack; he’s exasperated, sometimes despairing at the seemingly impossible task ahead of him.
The supporting cast are also impressive, even if not everyone gets their fair share of screen time. Watt’s team of unruly scientists and engineers provide most of the film’s comedy as they bicker with each other, coming up with plenty of madcap ways to come to their wearied chief’s aid. Laura Fraser gets the rough deal as Robert’s wife. Early on we’re shown the Watts’s and how loving a couple they are, yet this starts to crumble as Robert is increasingly obsessed with his work. The problem is that Fraser is only given a handful of scenes, so that when Robert’s wife decides to leave him (Robert finds a note, we don’t see their break up), it’s hard to sympathise as little time has been invested in this subplot. Even after Robert’s wife has left him, the film skips ahead and barely reflects on this.
How the film handles the breakdown of Watts’s marriage is its one-and-only flaw. Recently, Second World War films feel as if they’re making a comeback (possibly in a bid to win awards); Castles in the Sky is easily one of the best of this mini revival. Absorbing throughout, occasionally emotional, and with an impossible to fault performance from Izzard, this is a film that needs to be seen.
4 out of 5
Coherence (USA/English dialogue/89 min)
A group of friends are having dinner while all over the news people are talking about a comet passing close to Earth. The evening is soon interrupted by a power cut. At first they think this is normal, until people are heard wandering outside the house, banging on doors and windows before vanishing into the dark. As their situation becomes more frightening, paranoia sets in, personalities clash, and relationships begin to fracture.
If this summary of James Ward Byrkit’s science fiction thriller sounds like nothing new, that’s because I’ve tried not to spoil what happens. The less you know about Coherence and its plot, the more you’ll enjoy it. If you want a better way to describe Byrkit’s first feature film, try this: Coherence restores your faith in low budget science fiction.
You can tell the script, which Byrkit also wrote, has been through countless re-drafts; this is ninety minutes of pacy, intelligent entertainment. There are moments where you think you know what’s happening, only for Byrkit to throw in a twist that puts a massive, great line through everything you thought you knew. Fortunately this isn’t the sort of film where you’re struggling to work out what you’re watching. Byrkit knows what he’s doing; he knows how to keep up the tension without leaving people behind, scratching their heads.
While the cast (which includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Nicholas Brendon) are all typically young and good looking, they’re not your usual stereotypes. A large part of the thrills comes from the secrets that are revealed within the group and the different factions that are formed. The characters onscreen are recognisable for the right reasons, the different ways people would behave in scary situations such as this. During filming, much of the dialogue was improvised, which gives a sense that you’re watching real people and their reactions, but you also get some quick-thinking one-liners thrown in, most of them delivered by Brendan (“Help yourself; we’ve got cheese, wine, ketamine!”).
Considering Byrkit’s background has been in music and theatre, as well as working as a designer for Gore Verbinski, you can tell he made Coherence with an endless amount of confidence. It’s tricky to keep thrilling your audience when, for the most part, your film is set in one room, but Byrkit and his cast make it look easy. If Coherence doesn’t end up being a cult classic, then there’s simply no justice in this world!
4 out of 5
Cold in July (USA/English dialogue/109min)
Dexter’s Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, a family man who avoids confrontation. He owns a gun, but has never fired one. When he shoots and kills an unarmed burglar, Dane realises he can no longer trust the local police, who seem determined to cover up what happened at his home, turning vigilante in his search for answers.
Director Jim Mickle doesn’t do typical, seen-it-all-before thrillers. Stakeland was a vampire horror that was playful in its bending of the rules, whilst making its undead monsters both savage and frightening. We Are What We Are is arguably the greatest horror remake since Hollywood started the craze back in the early noughties. Mickle’s latest, Cold in July, starts off as a revenge thriller, but veers wildly into conspiracy, Spaghetti Western and even Coen Brothers comedy.
Mickle has always been obsessive over detail, and with Cold in July he pays homage to the violent thrillers of the eighties. Night time shots are bleached in neon signs and street light, all scored by Jeff Grace who, having never heard the phrase “Less is more,” almost pummels you with tense, lingering, John Carpenter-inspired synths.
The performances from the three leads could all be classed as career best; Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson feeling like they shouldn’t belong in the same film, yet somehow get away with it. Hall is an ordinary man who shakes and struggles to breathe when we first see him hold a gun, but as the film goes on he becomes this cool, scowling man who is all-too comfortable when dishing out ferocious violence. Sam Shepard, as Ben, starts off as a snarling, grizzled man who is also looking for answers. Mickle and co-screenwriter Nick Damici give us an interesting character arc when Ben, who you would expect to shrug off the sordid secrets that are uncovered, becomes increasingly unstable, while Richard ends up resembling Ben from early on in the film. Miami Vice’s Don Johnson steals the show, chewing the scenery in every scene he’s in, as Stetson-wearing, fiery-red convertible driving, foul-mouthed one liner spewing bad ass, Luke (a pig farmer turned private detective). Luke is there to provide the comedy and while you could argue that most of Johnson’s scenes descend into slapstick, jarring with the rest of the film, you don’t mind or don’t care because of how cocky, assured and effortlessly cool he is.
Not everything in Cold in July sits well, and the script doesn’t wrap things up as neatly as you would like, but like Johnson’s convertible, it’s a hell of good ride. Mickle steals from all sorts of films, but manages to come up with plenty of surprises thanks to three of the strongest performances you will see all year, a hot-blooded script and a gleeful, fan boy level of detail.
4 out of 5
A Dangerous Game (UK/English dialogue/98 min)
From the get-go, it’s clear that Anthony Baxter’s follow-up to his previous film, You’ve Been Trumped, is a one-sided, Michael Moore affair. A Dangerous Game scrutinises billionaire Donald Trump’s golf course at Meine, Aberdeenshire, and the damage he has caused to the local environment, as well as widening the scope to Croatia and America, interviewing environmentalists and local residents.
While A Dangerous Game is far from unbiased, it’s hard to agree with anything Trump has to say, the business giant coming across as arrogant and a bully during interviews and confrontations with Baxter. Michael Forbes, whose farm backs on to Trump’s golf course, his fishing business now ruined, is vilified by Trump (in 2012, Forbes won Scotsman of the Year at the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards). Demanding to be included in a committee meeting at the Scottish Parliament, an MP asks Trump what he has to back up his evidence, Trump quick to reply, “I am the evidence.” When Trump sits down with Baxter during an interview, it’s all-too-obvious that here is a man who does not like to be questioned or told no, preferring to raise his voice or say the same thing over-and-over when Baxter points out another example of Trump being a hypocrite.
Baxter is going for the jugular, but he makes a convincing argument against the development of luxury golf courses. An excellent example of real life, on-going David and Goliath clashes, A Dangerous Game restores your faith in the so-called “little people” taking on supposedly untouchable multi-billion dollar corporations.
4 out of 5
Doc of the Dead (USA/English dialogue/82 min)
Alexandre O Philippe (director of The People vs. George Lucas) gives us another documentary on popular culture, this time… Zombies! Thankfully, this isn’t a didactic, five hour documentary on the history of the sub genre, it’s a fun, tongue-in-cheek, concise look at zombies and how they’re more commercial than they ever have been (World War Z and Warm Bodies both being zombie films that avoided an 18 certificate).
O Philippe has an impressive guest list of horror legends including George Romero, Bruce Campbell, Max Brooks, Simon Pegg, Robert Kirkman, Sherman Howard and Tom Savini to name just a few. There are plenty of highlights here including a discussion on what the best course of action during a zombie apocalypse would be, as well as a zombie wedding conducted by The Evil Dead’s Ash himself!
Doc of the Dead goes on a (thankfully brief) tangent to examine the science behind whether a zombie virus could really happen. O Phillippe interviews a number of scientists and shows us stock footage, only to come to the conclusion that, while there is a virus that turns ants into cannibals, the chances of something like this ever happening to humans are remote to none. O Philippe could easily have cut this from the film as it’s a jarring shift in tone, the rest of the film feeling like a party for zombie fans, plus you already know what the answer’s going to be.
Doc of the Dead is a broad look at zombies as a cultural phenomenon. It asks plenty of questions rather than coming up with any definitive answers (what can you read into people’s obsession with the undead?), but it is well researched, looking at how zombies have shuffled their way from films, toys, TV, video games, to real-life survival horror events. O Philippe’s latest documentary should be watched by anyone who enjoys watching flesh eating corpses biting chunks out of the living.
4 out of 5
Garnet’s Gold (UK/English dialogue/76 min)
Garnet of the title has spent his life daydreaming. He is a bright, gentle man with a dry sense of humour and plenty of get-up-and-go. His life has never been predictable and he rarely follows the rules, but over the years he’s let plenty of chances slip by. Ed Perkins’ documentary follows Garnet as he comes up with the idea to search the Scottish Highlands for Bonnie Prince Charlie’s gold.
It’s not really spoiling anything by saying that Perkins’ film isn’t about Garnet’s search for buried treasure, it’s about a humble man looking back on his life and searching for some kind of hope or encouragement for the future.
Garnet’s Gold is astoundingly shot, Perkins not only able to convey the splendour of the Highlands, but how daunting they are, how isolated they can make a man feel. The real star of the show is Garnet himself; he’s remarkably honest about his failed ambitions and how conflicted he is. Garnet is wonderfully eccentric, but also child-like and fragile. He has spent virtually his whole life living with and looking after his mother, yet still confidently believes that one day he will find his true love.
Garnet’s Gold is moving and wonderful to watch, Perkins having come up with his very own treasure.
4 out of 5
The Guvnors (UK/English dialogue/92 min)
I’m going to put my hands up and say I’m not a big fan of British urban thrillers, the reason being that they tend to stylise gangland culture, make it look like something straight out of a comic book, when the truth is that being in a London gang is far from glamorous or exciting. Personally, despite being a horror film with plenty of tongue-in-cheek black comedy, Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block has the most to say about Britain’s teenage gangs. During the opening minutes of Gabe Turner’s The Guvnors, I thought, “Here we go again.” The leader of a teenage gang cuts a girl’s face for talking to the police. So far, so done to death. Yet as you keep watching, you realise that The Guvnors is very different to London-set gangland thrillers that all seem to have the same characters and the same plot.
The narrative centres on two generations of gangs; the aging Phil Mitchells who were hooligans back when riots on the terraces were all over the tabloids, and the hoodie, trainer-wearing gangs who routinely feature on today’s news. When Mickey (David Essex) is murdered in his flat by a teenage gang, “The Guvnors”, now car dealers, office workers and property developers, reunite to seek bloody revenge.
The performances here are fantastic to watch. Doug Allen is an ex-hooligan and gangland hard man who ran away from that life to protect his family. He realises returning to that world will only end badly, but he wants revenge for Mickey, his father-figure. Allen starts off with calm negotiations, trying to avoid bloodshed at all costs, but soon gives up hope when violence seems to be the only way to resolve things. Harley Alexander-Sule (one half of British hip-hop act, Rizzle Kicks) is startling as the leader of his own gang, obsessed with controlling what he calls, “His square.” His eyes are blank and he speaks in a slow, soft tone, never raising his voice. Unlike The Guvnors who see each other as a family and look out for each other, Alexander-Sule isn’t afraid to take a knife to one of his gang members, just so he gets what he wants.
The Guvnors has more to say about London gangs than virtually all the home-grown urban thrillers released within the last decade: how crime is changing and the police are struggling to cope with this change; a legacy of violence that moves from one generation to the next, begging the question of how to make it stop; can someone born and raised in this violent, anarchic life ever truly change their ways? There’s a lot here that most films in this genre simply don’t bother to discuss. The Guvnors is thrilling, original, occasionally delivering the odd smart one-liner; a major stand out amongst this year’s entries at EIFF.
4 out of 5
Hardkor Disko (Poland/Polish dialogue with English subtitles/87 min)
Marcin (Marcin Kowalcyzk) meets Ola (Jasmine Polak), a beautiful young woman obsessed with drink, drugs and all-night partying. The two of them begin an on-off relationship, but it’s clear from the outset that Marcin isn’t interested in Ola, he’s using her to get to her parents, driven by a murderous grudge for reasons unknown.
Hardkor Disko has an intriguing premise; a man arriving in a city with murder on his mind, yet we’re oblivious as to what’s going on inside his head, why he has this urge to kill. Trouble is, screenwriters Krzysztof Skonieczny and Robert Bolesto don’t do anything or go anywhere with this idea. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that you never find out why Marcin wants Ola’s parents dead. This would be fine if the script explored themes such as what makes a man hate a family so much that he will become part of their lives, spend time with them, and then, when nobody is around to stop him, commit murder? Skonieczny and Bolesto’s script doesn’t even do that. Instead Hardkor Disko coasts along at a wearisome pace, taking far too long before Marcin gets to kill someone. Perhaps Skonieczny and Bolesto thought this was build-up, but a ten-minute scene involving Marcin sat with Ola and her parents at breakfast, listening to their trivial, middle-class views, is far from build-up, it’s tedious. There’s no tension here, no sense of unease. Instead you know Marcin is going to kill someone and are sat waiting for this to happen, but because this takes so long, most scenes adding nothing either to the narrative or the characters, you wind up bored. When Ola’s father is eventually killed off, you’ve lost all interest in what you’re watching.
Skonieczny previously worked on music videos and this shows in Hardkor Disko’s visuals. The nightclubs and house parties of Warsaw are edited together at an intense pace that makes MTV look tame, shimmering colours such as golds or whites used to make you feel just as much of an outsider as Marcin does. This is contrasted with lingering shots during car journeys, or when Marcin and Ola sit side-by-side in the countryside the morning a house party, Kacper Fertacz deliberately setting up the camera so you feel like a voyeur, an accomplice to Marcin’s violence.
Marcin Kowalcyzk is a believable psychopath, even if the script doesn’t give him all that much to do. He’s unnervingly emotionless except for his eyes, which hint at a supressed hatred and conflicting emotions.
If Hardkor Disko’s narrative was anywhere near as creative as its visuals then Skonieczny’s film would be a career highlight. Not knowing why Marcin commits his crimes feels like a cynical excuse to keep you watching something that is tenuous and overlong.
2 out of 5
Life After Beth (USA/English dialogue/91 min)
Zach (Dane DeHaan) is inconsolable when his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) dies. When he turns up at Beth’s parents’ house to find her wandering around as if nothing happened, he is ecstatic to be given a second chance, to make up for the mistakes he made during their relationship. Yet Beth begins to change, both personality-wise (she becomes temperamental, aggressive) as well as physically (she starts to decay); Zach quickly putting two-and-two together: his girlfriend is a zombie.
America has, once-or-twice, tried to come up with a comedy horror that equals Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, and while some of them have come close (Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland), they’ve not managed to recreate the witty observations and endearing laughs of Wright’s feature film debut. Jeff Baena’s directorial debut, Life After Beth manages to be just as clever and comical as the Cornetto Trilogy’s first entry.
Baena’s script is perfect, it doesn’t do a single thing wrong. It’s a constant mix of roar with laughter humour and thoughtful, poignant observations; none of it jarring. There’s plenty of insane, Ghostbusters-style humour and original ideas here, such as the zombies listening to smooth jazz because it helps calm them down, as well as one of the best visual gags you will see in a comedy all year, which involves an oversized oven. Alongside the so-funny-Baena-makes-it-look-easy comedy are some complex questions about love and life. Now that Zach has Beth back, he realises that she’s not as perfect as he remembers; she’s controlling, whatever she says goes. No longer having Beth around has romanticised Zach’s memories of her; he only remembers the good things, not the bad.
Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza give performances that can’t be faulted. DeHaan, known for playing the bad guy in Chronicle and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a natural comedian, both in his delivery of some fiendishly sharp dialogue or his reactions to some of the more insane situations he finds himself in (Beth deciding she likes the taste of Zach’s car’s upholstery). He’s also movingly honest in how he depicts heartache, resorting to ever more desperate measures to ensure the love of his life doesn’t leave him a second time.
Plaza looks like she’s having a hell of a lot of fun playing Beth, but her portrayal of Zach’s undead girlfriend is a subtle one, slowly changing from sweet and innocent girl next door to a bad-tempered, flesh-eating corpse. Baena has clearly given a lot of thought in to what would a zombie say if it could talk, as well as the problems of having a relationship with someone who’s dead. Life After Beth’s script is a challenging one for any actress and Plaza does a fantastic job with everything she is given.
The supporting cast is just as noteworthy. John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon make a brilliant duo as Beth’s parents, both dishing out plenty of laughs in their attempts to keep the truth hidden from their daughter, as well as being pitiably tragic; they’ve got their Beth back, but haven’t given a thought to the consequences. Considering Matthew Gray Gubler, as Zach’s big brother, a police officer both at work as well as at home with his parents, only appears in a handful of scenes, he is given an absurd amount of one-liners.
A special mention has to go to the film’s score, written and performed by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (the band’s first instrumental album), the ominous, droning feedback going hand-in-hand with Life After Beth’s more thoughtful moments.
Jeff Baena’s first film in the director’s chair manages the tricky task of being both tears streaming down your face hysterical, and a charming, sensitive commentary about death and love. Life After Beth is flawless; the cream of the films I saw at this year’s EIFF, as well as being the best film so far this year.
5 out of 5
Miss Zombie (Japan/Japanese dialogue with English subtitles/Black and white/85 min)
A doctor and his family receive an unusual package in the post: a zombie. Inside the crate is a gun and a note saying the creature, a young woman, is harmless so long as she keeps away from raw meat. The family decide to keep her around doing the housework. After an accident in which the young son drowns, the boy’s mother forces the zombie to feed on her child, bringing him back from the dead. This is when things start to turn gory and very, very complicated…
Miss Zombie is not your typical zombie film, more of an arthouse take on the undead. For virtually the whole of its running time, Daisuke Souma shoots in black-and-white, giving every scene an eerie, uncomfortable feel, the make-up for the zombie looking even more grotesque, especially her black, emotionless eyes.
There are lots of ideas here that you don’t usually see in a zombie film (Sabu having written and directed Miss Zombie): people’s reactions to seeing a corpse walking around; the bond between mother and child and how this bond continues after death; the living’s desire to be loved and is it possible for a zombie to feel love? Miss Zombie is a thinking man’s zombie horror, much like Romero’s Dawn or Day of the Dead.
What stops Sabu’s latest from being one of the very best zombie films is the pace, the build-up taking far longer than it should. There is a sense of unease throughout Miss Zombie’s hour-and-a-half, you know that something bad is about to happen, but it takes a long time before any flesh gets chewed on.
Miss Zombie is a strong entry in the zombie sub-genre; fans of horror films and the living dead should keep an eye out for it. The problem is that it’s almost too reflective for its own good; too much brooding and not quite enough to get the pulse raising. A solid enough ninety minutes, but as a half-hour short film, it could have been something really special.
3 out of 5
A Most Wanted Man (UK, USA, Germany/English dialogue/122 min)
A Most Wanted Man has hit written all over it. It’s adapted from a John le Carré novel directed by Anton Corbijn, whose first feature film Control, a biopic of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, won massive critical acclaim, and stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, and Willem Dafoe. There are plenty of spy films out there: people stood around looking moody (constantly smoking or drinking), about to chase after someone down a dim back street alley. To its credit, A Most Wanted Man does try and do something different with the predictable genre.
After 9/11, one of the key men behind the attack was found to have been living and planning the attacks in Hamburg. German Intelligence had no idea that this had been happening. Since 2001, America has had its eye on Germany, with tensions running high between the two countries; German Intelligence not wanting to make the same mistake again.
There’s plenty here that you won’t have seen in a spy film: post 9/11 paranoia, attitudes towards Muslims (most people see Muslims and immediately think terrorist), and questioning how much damage America causes by wading in every time there is even the slightest, unfounded suggestion of an attack?
Nobody puts a foot wrong, acting-wise, but this is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s show, reminding us just what a peerless talent he was. Americans tend to do a ropey job when it comes to accents, but here you would think Hoffman lived in Germany all his life. Hoffman has always done a sterling job of playing tortured souls, and he does the same here as Gunther Bachmann, head of a German Intelligence agency, still haunted by his operation in Beirut, where a mistake by the Americans cost the lives of Bachmann’s team. Bachmann knows all-too-well that who’s good and who’s bad is rarely clear; he is a brilliant mind coupled with a weary soul, spending most of his time drinking in shabby bars.
The problem with the film is that a twist you don’t usually see in spy films, especially those centred on the Muslim community, kills the tension early on. There is very little jeopardy here. What follows is absorbing enough, but it’s not “Find the mole or several operatives will have their cover blown”, or “The heads of a terrorist network are all meeting and we need to find out what they’re planning”. You get more than your fair share of surprises, but once you find out that there is no immediate threat, what started out as a gripping film suddenly loses its punch.
A Most Wanted Man looks polished enough, thanks to Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography revealing Hamburg’s underbelly, you just wonder how much of the narrative is straight out of Le Carre’s novel, and how much has Andrew Bovell tinkered with in order to bring it to the screen? Anton Corbijn’s latest is an above average spy thriller which shoots itself in the foot by changing the rules within the first half-hour. It’s worth seeing for Philip Seymour Hoffman alone, but will only be remembered for being one of the last, possibly even the last, films he starred in.
3 out of 5
My Accomplice (UK/English dialogue/92 min)
The best way to describe what goes on in Charlie Weaver Rolfe’s film is that it’s a love letter to Brighton, to all the different and eccentric characters who live there. Frank and Ilse are the stars of the show, who start dating, but are both cautious as they’ve been hurt in relationships before.
Most of My Accomplice feels improvised, Rolfe telling his cast to do what they like so long as they stick to the bare bones of the story; a good and bad thing. While a large part of the film is funny to watch, thanks mostly to Stuart Martin’s cheeky chappy charisma, having a one-liner ready for every situation, not all of the jokes and madcap humour hit the mark. There are several minutes where you’re waiting for the film to raise a smile or make you chuckle.
Rolfe gets several local bands on board (The Mountain Firework Company, Bob Wants His Head Back, Transformer), their songs accompanying – the band members even appearing in – several scenes, which helps give Brighton that sense of being a quirky, unique place to live, as well as being enormously likable stuff to listen to.
Visually, the film is basic, run of the mill. So long as the lighting’s half decent and everyone and everything is in focus, then that’s good enough. Rolfe gives us some postcard shots of Brighton and its cheerfully coloured streets, but otherwise the visuals do just enough to tell the story, and that’s it.
My Accomplice is unusual in the sense that very little happens, yet it still manages to be enjoyable. It’s unlikely you would own it on DVD, but as an off-the-cuff piece of film making, (you get the sense that Rolfe got hold of a camera and thought, “To hell with it, let’s make a film!”) it puts a smile on your face, whilst persuading you to pack up your bags and move to Brighton.
3 out of 5
A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide (UK/English dialogue/85 min)
When you read the summary for A Practical Guide, it sounds like it’s well worth a watch. Tom Collins (Graeme McGeagh) has tried to kill himself numerous times, but partly due to how clumsy he is, partly due to some seriously bad luck, he’s failed miserably. Forced into therapy and meeting fellow patient Eve (Annabel Logan), Tom begins to realise that there are people in this world who actually care about him.
When you see the film, directed by Graham Hughes, you realise that virtually everything about it is amateurish. The script (a three-hander written by Hughes, McGeagh and Keith Grantham) is supposed to be a comedy, yet almost all of the jokes sound like they came out of a Christmas cracker; you’ll be stone-faced throughout most of A Practical Guide’s running time. The performances are stilted and awkward; it feels like Hughes got his friends involved instead of having auditions and getting proper actors on board. There are a couple of witty lines, but due to poor delivery, they pass by without so much as a smile. A Practical Guide’s biggest and unforgivable problem is the sound. Audiences will put up with workmanlike visuals, even the odd poor performance, but they won’t tolerate muffled, tinny, occasionally unfathomable dialogue. Even without a budget, decent quality sound isn’t too big an ask. A Practical Guide has the worst sound I have ever heard in a supposedly professional feature length film.
The worst thing about A Practical Guide is that there would have been plenty of other films, far better than this one, that could have had their UK premiere in Edinburgh. Bizarrely, the jury picked this one. If A Practical Guide was set anywhere other than Scotland, my bet is it would never have been given shown at the EIFF. There are student films out there that are better written, better acted, and with far better sound. Almost half of the audience in the screening walked out, which tells you just about all you need to know.
1 out of 5
Scintilla (UK/English dialogue/94 min)
Billy O’Brien’s Scintilla and Noel Clarke’s The Anomaly share one-or-two things in common. They’re both low budget British thrillers that put their own spin on all-too familiar genre conventions, yet while Clarke’s film manages to keep you entertained thanks to its polished production, Brien’s Scintilla feels like a tired old rehash.
It’s the usual plot: British mercenaries infiltrate an underground research facility in the former Soviet Union to kidnap a renowned scientist. Trouble is, there’s something lurking down those pitch-black corridors…
The performances are all decent enough. John Lynch (of TV series The Jury and The Fall-fame) heads the cast as the mercenaries’ cool-headed leader, Powell, but every character here is a walking, talking cliché. Misfits star Antonia Thomas is basically Vasquez from Aliens, while Beth Winslet (Kate Winslet’s sister) is your typically unfeeling scientist who puts her research well above human life.
Scintilla looks impressive thanks to production designer Paul Inglis (who previously worked on Children of Men, Prometheus and Skyfall) giving the visuals a desolate, atmospheric, dirt under the nails feel. The film is set in present day, but often feels like another world, similar to early British science fiction such as X the Unknown and The Quatermass Experiment.
What badly lets Scintilla down is the script. Considering this is a horror film, for the most part it’s not scary. There aren’t enough jolts; you get plenty of shots of the mercenaries looking moody, wandering around with their guns pointed, and what scares you do get are the usual wandering down a dark corridor and something loud and nasty grabs them. There’s no tension here as O’Brien relies on set ups that have been done before and better (The Descent, Rec. 2, Pitch Black). The only person who will sit through Scintilla, squirming and fidgeting, is someone who doesn’t like, or doesn’t watch horror films. When you are finally told what’s happening in the underground laboratory, Beth Winslet recites what feels like a non-stop, ten minute monologue. If Family Fortunes asked a hundred people to name things you would normally associate with a science fiction film, virtually all of them turn up in Winslet’s speech: genetic experiments, alien DNA, unlocking the mind’s potential, and so on. It’s tiresome, heavy-going stuff.
Scintilla recycles the usual science fiction yarns and thinks it can get away with it thanks to some scrubbed up visuals. O’Brien tries to make his own old-school British horror, but ends up with a film that is dull and outdated.
2 out of 5
Snowpiercer (South Korea/English, Korean, Japanese and French dialogue with English subtitles/126 min)
Having had a flick through EIFF’s programme, Snowpiercer was one of the first that caught my eye. It stars Captain America’s Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt, has a massively original premise, and both public screenings sold out more-or-less straight away.
The world has frozen over. What survivors are left have been crammed onto a gigantic train which circles the globe over and over; the poor are at the back, living in filthy, dreadful conditions, while the rich live a life of luxury. Curtis (Chris Evans) plans a revolution to move through each carriage until they get to the front of the train, the engine room, and confront its mysterious, never seen driver.
Director Bong Joon-ho makes the most of Snowpiercer’s central idea, that as you open the door to the next carriage, anything could be behind there. There are imaginative visuals from beginning-to-end, one of the many highlights being a fight taking place as the train goes through a tunnel, people fighting with flaming torches and night vision goggles. Most of the violence is heard rather than seen, with brief glimpses of blood splattering against walls.
All of the performances, as you would expect, are impressive. Tilda Swinton steals every scene she’s in as the train driver’s right-hand woman/skivvy, putting on a broad northern accent, staring wide eyed through huge glasses and licking her yellowish, oversized dentures. Chris Evans, famous the world over thanks to Marvel’s films, plays a completely different hero here as Curtis. While he leads his friends, always doing the right thing, he deliberately avoids talking about himself and his past. It’s all too clear that this is a man who has done terrible things in order to survive.
It feels as though most recent science fiction films or blockbusters start off with a good five-to-ten minutes of exposition before things get started. Cleverly, Mark Cousins and Maria Akbari’s script drip feeds us information. As Curtis and his rebels move from carriage to carriage, we are given tiny details about the train and its severe social class divide. Sadly Cousins and Akbari can’t manage this for the whole of Snowpiercer’s two hours; the last twenty minutes feel like The Matrix Reloaded, when Neo meets the Architect and you are force-fed exposition. When we find out what’s really happening on the train, as surprising as some of the twists are, it’s talking, talking and more talking. Not so much “Show, don’t tell” as “Talk you into submission.”
The rest of Snowpiercer is thrilling, intelligent stuff, yet the ending, how Cousins and Akbari try and explain what’s happening, is badly handled. By the time the film picks up the pace again for the last few minutes, it’s too late, you’ve stopped caring. It’s almost as if that solid fifteen minutes of pull-the-rug-from-under-you dialogue is from another film, it doesn’t fit with what you’ve been watching.
Snowpiercer deserves to be seen and is certainly one of the better science fiction films released over the last few years, but it’s not the breath-taking, take the box office by storm blockbuster that Bong Joon-ho was trying to make.
3 out of 5
Still Life (UK/English dialogue/87 min)
John May (Eddie Marsan) works for the council, searching for friends and relatives of the deceased who were alone when they passed away. Due to downsizing, May is told that he is being made redundant. Usually, despite his best efforts, May is unable to find anyone willing to go to the funeral, and ends up making the arrangements himself. For his last case, May is determined to find someone to claim the body, and track down loved ones to attend the funeral.
Marsan is famous for taking hateful characters and making them complex and credible. For Uberto Passolini’s Still Life, Marson is gentle, quietly despairing at people’s attitudes towards the dead (like his boss, who sees May’s job as a waste of the council’s money: the dead are dead, they don’t care if no one shows up at the funeral). While he is not a passionate man, May’s passion is shown through how thorough and considerate he is. Marsan is a criminally underrated actor; he has a huge, impressive CV, yet rarely gets a look in when it comes to award ceremonies. This year, Marsan won the EIFF award for Best Performance in a British Feature Film for Still Life, which nobody could argue with. You both root as well as feel sorry for May; the only people who appreciate how hard he works are not around to tell anyone. Also, you soon recognise that May’s life shares all too many similarities with his clients.
Like its protagonist, Still Life is a quiet film that takes its time, with plenty of subtle humour; smile or chuckle to yourself laughs, where you think, “I’ve done that,” or “I know someone like that.” The script, also written by Passolini, is similar, both in tone and themes, to Graham Swift’s novels, Last Orders especially: the difference an ordinary human life can make and how this goes unnoticed, the different generations within a family and how easily they end up distancing themselves from each other.
If this was a mainstream Hollywood film, Still Life would be overly, cringe-makingly sentimental. There’s something very British in how respectful and restrained Passolini is with his subject matter, preferring brief nods here-and-there to get his message across (May searches his client’s flat and notices that an armchair leg is broken, a pile of books keeping it upright. When May pays his client’s daughter a visit, she does the same thing with one of her chairs). Still Life is another highlight at this year’s festival. Too many of Eddie Marsan’s films have not attracted the audience they deserve, being fondly talked about by film buffs and that’s it. Passolini was producer on the worldwide box office record breaker that was The Full Monty; Still Life warrants the same level of success.
4 out of 5
Violet (Belgium, Netherlands/Dutch dialogue with English subtitles/82 min)
On paper, Violet sounds like it could be worth a watch: Teenager Jesse murders his best friend and gets away with it. What follows is how Jesse deals with his grief and his guilt, his friends in the BMX biker gang he belongs to trying to help him as well as understand what happened.
Violet is a perfect example of a film that thinks it’s more profound than it really is. The film is less than ninety-minutes, yet it’s largely made up of shots that are held for an excessively prolonged amount of time.
Bas Devos’s film is about grief through the eyes of an adolescent, yet it barely scratches the surface of its premise. Instead, much of the film has César De Sutter sit around staring into space (again, the camera staying on him for far longer than is needed). At times Violet is shoddy stuff, a number of scenes featuring tracking shots of the BMX gang as they cycle through the town’s streets. While there’s nothing wrong with improvised scenes, there’s a massive issue when characters are talking to each other, but they’ve cycled off screen so you can’t see them.
There are a handful of well thought-out shots, such as Jesse going to a heavy metal concert. The camera starts off out of focus, we can only make out dots of light. Very slowly the camera focuses in on Jesse, swallowed up by the crowd, everyone having a good time except him. Another scene has Jesse and his father driving back home, not talking. After a long period of silence, Jesse shuffles across the seat and rests his head on his father’s shoulder. Tragically, scenes like this are rare. Violet may have made an interesting short film, but as it is it’s overlong, pretentious and borderline unwatchable. While I’ve not seen every film at this year’s EIFF, Violet surely has to be one of the worst being shown at this year’s festival; it’s easily one of the worst films I’ve seen in a long time.
1 out of 5
We Are Monster (UK/English dialogue/88 min)
We Are Monster shows us what led to the murder of Zahid Mubarek, who was killed hours before he was to be released from a young offenders institution by his cellmate Robert Stewart, in what was a racially motivated attack.
Leeshon Alexander, who plays Stewart and also wrote and produced the film, makes no apologies for We Are Monster being a theatrical, arthouse prison drama; this is far from David Mackenzie’s Starred Up. While Mubarek’s murder could have been shown in a linear, scene-by-scene fashion, this would have been a half-hour film at most and, more importantly, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as compelling.
It was too little, too late, but after Mubarek’s murder, Stewart was diagnosed as having dual personalities. With We Are Monster, what plays out is a two-hander, both roles played by Alexander; the skittish, meek Stewart, and the other version of him inside his head, the fearless, violent man who comes up with all the ideas. Alexander is outstanding; Stewart isn’t a mindless, racist murderer, he’s a contradictory, brooding man, a constant battle between right and wrong going on inside of his head. Alexander perfectly shows us all these sides of Stewart; you can’t take your eyes off the screen whenever he’s around.
Alexander admits that facts had to be changed in the script, as otherwise no one watching the film would believe just how negligent the staff at Mubarek’s young offenders institute were (rather than the underside of a table that was broken – easier to miss – it was one of the table legs that Stewart hacked off and went unnoticed).
It’s hard to find anything wrong with We Are Monster. Cinematographer Simon Richards proves that a limited budget doesn’t mean a limited number of ideas going on behind the camera. While the majority of the action takes place inside Stewart’s cell, the film looks smart throughout, pulling off a number of smart visual tricks with both the good and the bad versions of Robert Stewart. We Are Monster is not for the meek and mild, you are forced to listen to a virtually endless barrage of racist dialogue, but the language used is exactly how Stewart wrote in his letters to the outside world (in interviews, Stewart denied being a racist).
Well researched and astoundingly well made, We Are Monster’s message is one that deserves telling and should be seen by everyone.
4 out of 5
We’ll Never Have Paris (USA/English dialogue/95 min)
As the tag line for We’ll Never Have Paris goes, “This is based on a true story, unfortunately.” Quinn Bermann (The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg) has a mid-life crisis in his mid-twenties. Shortly before proposing to his girlfriend, Devon (Jocelyn Towne), co-worker Kelsey (Maggie Grace) confesses her love for him. Without much thought, Quinn leaves Devon and tries to work out what he wants from a relationship. Realising Devon is his soul mate, he travels to Paris where she is “finding herself”, only Devon is now seeing a French violinist. Quinn decides he will go to any shamelessly desperate lengths to win his not quite fiancée back.
Simon Helberg and Jocelyn Towne have been married since 2007. We’ll Never Have Paris, which they both wrote and directed, is based on their relationship. It’s a romantic comedy and, while you won’t work up too much of a mental sweat trying to work out the ending, there are one or two surprises thrown in as well as a number of big laughs. Unlike the big budget American rom-coms where the leads get everything right and not much happens to them, We’ll Never Have Paris is set in the real world, with plenty of true-to-life, awkward moments.
As Quinn Bermann, Helberg is fixated, overanxious; he speaks first and thinks several hours later. Fans of The Big Bang Theory will already know how extraordinary he is at conveying blind panic, which he gets to do numerous times here, as well as being able to deliver Woody Allen-style monologues, overthinking trivial things in amusing detail. While you often stop and wonder whether someone could actually be this naïve and stupid, if you put these thoughts to one side then Helberg is always funny, sometimes howl with laughter hysterical.
While he only appears briefly, Zachary Quinto (Star Trek, Heroes) gets to deliver some of the film’s best one-liners as Quinn’s hippy-ish, slightly bonkers, but always talking sense, best friend.
We’ll Never Have Paris will have audiences laughing throughout. What stops it from reaching the heights of Bridesmaids or Knocked Up is that its comedy is light, chuckle quietly humour, the big laughs are too spaced out. There are some set pieces, such as Quinn and Kelsey’s disastrous first attempt at sex, or Quinn arriving in Paris and gate-crashing Devon’s grandparents’ dinner. The latter is a neatly written scene which gets more uncomfortable and more raucous the longer it goes on for. Just as you think things couldn’t get any more embarrassing for Quinn, he manages to outdo himself.
We’ll Never Have Paris is a welcome addition to the overcrowded romantic comedy subgenre because of how it avoids the usual clichés; Helberg and Towne know that, in real life, what people plan in their heads is far different from what actually happens. It could have done with a few more laugh so hard, you struggle to breathe gags, but girlfriends, as well as boyfriends, will walk out of the cinema having enjoyed it.
3 out of 5
Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang (Spain/Spanish dialogue with English subtitles/92 min)
Zip and his brother Zap are the school rebels, but after one too many pranks they are sent off to the Hope summer school, where anything fun is strictly off limits. Up to their old tricks, the boys form a gang to cause as much trouble as possible for their tyrannical head teacher, Falconetti. During one stunt, they find a treasure map leading to diamonds hidden somewhere within the school. The Marble Gang embark on an adventure to be the first to find the treasure.
Director Oskar Santos is clearly a big fan of The Goonies and your old fashioned boys’ adventures. Zip & Zap might feel familiar, but it’s a good familiar rather than rehashing ideas we know all too well. Thanks to Josu Inchaustegui, the film looks like a sumptuous gothic fairytale; Guillermo del Toro if he ever decided to make a children’s film. There’s no chance of either children or adults getting bored here, Zip & Zap’s ninety-two minutes hurrying along at a breakneck pace.
While the Marble Gang are all characters we’ve seen before in other adventure films (the tomboy girl, the nerdy one, the rebellious leader, the fat one who loves food), all of the child actors give confident performances; their comic timing and quick one-liners are half the fun of Zip and Zap.
Oskar Santos has come up with a nostalgic, massively entertaining film. Despite being made for a fraction of Hollywood’s blockbusters, the special effects stand head-and-shoulders with the likes of the Harry Potter franchise. Unless you’re a cold human like Falconetti, you’re guaranteed to have a beaming grin on your face after watching Zip & Zap.
4 out of 5
Usually with EIFF, the majority of films are fine, they’re watchable, but there are only one-or-two must-see, add it to your DVD collection, classics. This year felt different. While I may have been lucky with my film choices, it felt like EIFF 2014’s programme was showing great films, one straight after the other.
Top of the list for me was Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth. For those out there who aren’t keen on horror, don’t be put off that it’s a zombie film, this is 2014’s best comedy so far. It’s not about the gore, although the make-up effects used on Aubrey Plaza are brilliantly grotesque, Baena’s film is an impossible to fault mix of laughs and regrets that manages to keep up the pace throughout.
There are plenty of other films to keep your beady eye on: Still Life, Cold in July, We Are Monster, Coherence, The Guvnors, Castles in the Sky and Zip & Zap should all be seen. Never mind EIFF, they’re some of the best films you’ll sit down and watch at the cinema over the next twelve months.
I mentioned in last year’s Review of the Year show that I don’t go out of my way to watch documentaries, and when I do, I have to be in the mood for one. Saying that, the three documentaries I saw at this year’s EIFF were all massively impressive: A Dangerous Game, Doc of the Dead, and my favourite of the bunch, Garnet’s Gold.
Of course, you can’t show such a colossal number of films at a festival without there being one or two stinkers. Violet felt like a senseless hour-and-a-half, that what could have been an interesting idea ended up being wasted. I chat to people about EIFF and they’re put off because they think that, for some reason, it’s all experimental films, nothing they would go anywhere near. That’s not true at all! There are rule-breaking, mind frazzling, no narrative to speak of films included in the programme if that’s something you fancy watching, but they’re few and far between. Violet does nothing to convince people that Edinburgh is a festival for anyone and everyone who loves film.
With A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide, the more I stop and think about it, the more hacked off I get. Never mind that Graham Hughes’s film was picked to be part of this year’s programme, it was also chosen as part of EIFF’s Best of the Fest. A Practical Guide was on the list; Life After Beth never got a mention. That’s not just criminal, that’s embarrassing. That suggests A Practical Guide is easily as good as Castles in the Sky, We Are Monster and Snowpiercer (all shortlisted for Best of the Fest), as well as saying that it is way ahead of the films that failed to make it into the festival. A Practical Guide is so poorly filmed, you wonder how nobody picked up on this during editing? EIFF was originally set up to discover and promote new filmmaking talent. Nobody needs to know about A Practical Guide; nobody needs to see it.
These are two blips in an otherwise strong line-up of films, the best programme I’ve seen over the last seven years of making the trek up to Edinburgh; a well-judged mix of independent cinema and big names arriving on the red carpet. It felt like almost every film I sat down and watched deserved a second viewing, that there were plenty of titles to add to my DVD shelf.
I will happily wave the flag for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. So many films that I keep mentioning on-and-on to friends, I got to see at the festival. I’ll hold my hands up and admit that Edinburgh is the only major film festival I’ve been to, but it feels like the programmers go out of their way to track down films that can stand side-by-side with what’s on at your local cinema, the difference being that they’re not Hollywood films with a multi-million dollar marketing campaign, they can be a low budget, funny-as-hell British horror about giant tentacled aliens attacking a remote Irish pub (Jon Wright’s Grabbers) to brooding Mexican science fiction, which asks more troubling questions than the majority of films in its genre (Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer). The beauty of EIFF is that if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone, where you have your expectations about a film and virtually know scene-by-scene what’s about to happen, then you will be glad you gave it a go. EIFF is over for another year, the signs and banners across Edinburgh have come down, but I’ve already got my eye on their Facebook/Twitter page, planning what I’ll be watching next year.