For Scottish film bloggers and cinema-goers alike, June means only one thing…EIFF! Yes, the Edinburgh International Film Festival is here again for its 69th year, with new Artistic Director Mark Adams pulling the strings. So, this month’s ‘Top 5’ post is a special Edinburgh edition, listing the must-sees of what is a cracking line up running from Wednesday 17th through to Sunday 28th…
1. The Legend of Barney Thomson
Black comedy ‘The Legend of Barney Thomson’ marks the directorial debut of actor Robert Carlyle, and has an intriguing storyline which centres around a boring barber who turns serial killer! Ray Winstone and Emma Thompson co-star alongside Carlyle.
Indie director David Gordon Green has enjoyed a run of form, making Prince Avalanche and Joe in recent years, so his next project ‘Manglehorn’ is hotly anticipated. The iconic Al Pacino takes the leading role as a downtrodden locksmith.
3. Black Mountain Poets
‘Black Mountain Poets’ is the final part of Jamie Adams’ modern-romance trilogy, following Benny & Jolene and A Wonderful Christmas Time. Continuing his improvisational approach to comedy filmmaking, his latest sees Alice Lowe and Dolly Wells star as sisters who assume the identities of wordsmiths. A follow-up interview with director Adams is coming soon!
4. The Road Within
What do you get if you cross someone with Tourette’s, an anorexic and an OCD sufferer? You get ‘The Road Within’ featuring performances from Robert Sheehan, Dev Patel and Zoe Kravitz. It is written and directed by Gren Wells.
5. 45 Years
’45 Years’ is a relationship drama starring veteran British acting talent Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, and is directed by Andrew Haigh. Exploring the fragilities and complexities of a lengthy marriage, it is sure to be a powerful and thought-provoking watch.
When it premiered at Cannes festival last year, Ryan Gosling’s hotly anticipated directorial debut ‘Lost River’ was panned almost unanimously, which, as a fan of him as an actor only made me more intrigued to see it. Since the negative initial reaction, it has been tweaked and tinkered for its cinema release with a little shaved off the running time. The title refers to the environment in which the film takes place, a warped wasteland where the American Dream has gone horribly sour. The intertwining plotlines follow three main characters in struggling single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks), her eldest son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and their neighbour Rat (Saoirse Ronan) as they desperately try to better themselves and their lives, looking for a way out of a decaying habitat with no economic promise. Plucking apparent influences from his pool of experience within the industry, the first-time filmmaker forges his own vision of fractured dreams peppered with fantasy neo-noir elements and striking imagery.
The marketing of the release sprung obvious comparisons to the work Gosling has done with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, and the neon-tinged palette and occasional usage of extreme violence brings that to fruition. However, I feel there is more of relation to his collaborations with Derek Cianfrance in terms of the narrative, like the spiritual cousin of The Place Beyond The Pines if you will. As the story develops and begins to take shape, Billy and Bones take risks to make ends meat and keep their family afloat, and events turn from strange to downright bizarre. Throughout though it remains both visually and audibly interesting, the spellbinding soundtrack from Johnny Jewel providing haunting nostalgia.
The success slips slightly in the core performances of the piece, and I was left wanting a little more from Hendricks and De Caestecker. Perhaps the characters fall victim to drowning in the heavy scenery. Memorable villainous turns come instead from the supporting cast, with Aussie bad boy Ben Mendelsohn steps in with real menace as a sadistic Lynchian-lunatic and Doctor Who’s Matt Smith bellowing expletive-laden chants to mark his turf, viciously taking scissors to those who cross him. The souls that dwell in the utopian-fairytale setting of ‘Lost River’ are radical, often completely unbelievable, but fascinating to be in the company of.
It can be argued that none of Ryan Gosling’s vivid ideas are his own in his first dabble into both writing and directing a motion picture. Conversely, if you’re going to beg, steal and borrow from those that inspire you as an artist, he’s chosen an eclectic bunch, and importantly includes a flavour of the cool guy personality he has an actor to the proceedings. His Hollywood reputation has unfairly preceded him in the infancy of his career in the director’s chair, and his work appears to be getting judged only on its intrepid and admittedly copycat style rather than the subtleties of its substance. Putting this to one side, as a feature debut, ‘Lost River’ is bold, brave and dare I say it, brilliant.
Swapping dystopia for his own brand of utopia, Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go presents his intelligent debut as director ‘Ex Machina’. Continuing the run of thought provoking science-fiction in contemporary cinema, his intimate story follows geeky computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to the isolated lair of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), after he receives an invite as a prize to a competition. Whizzed off to the secret location by helicopter, he has no idea what to expect and is thrilled when informed that he is to take part in a Turing Test experiment with the highly advanced robot that his boss has built. The machine in question is named Ava (Alicia Vikander) with the test taking place over one week, across several monitored encounters. These meetings, where Caleb and Ava get the chance to ‘know’ each other, form the structure and pacing of the film, giving a steady, if at times repetitive, platform in which to handle the ever-expansive psychological and technological themes.
Set in only one slickly futuristic yet somehow cold creepy environment with only three predominant characters, the fixed set up lends the film an unnerving sense of claustrophobia that lurks throughout. The relationships between the three are never simple, always transforming and simmering with complex tension. The script is sharp and intellectual and makes every conversation that takes place interesting and full of acumen. Regular power cuts in the building serve as a plot device as Caleb, Nathan and Ava try and stay one step ahead of each other, and in turn keeps the audience not only guessing what will happen next but also pondering the all encompassing questions that it poses of humanity, artificial intelligence and the blurred lines in between.
Because we are trapped in a tight space with only a few faces to keep us company, it is even more important that the acting is up to scratch. Gleeson certainly works as the wide-eyed inquisitive central figure, and his casting brings out comparisons and similarities with a certain episode Charlie Brooker’s sci-satirical series Black Mirror in which he plays a man who dies and is rebuilt through his virtual personality on social media. This could easily be mistaken for a feature length sequel. As good as Gleeson is though, he is third best behind Isaac and Vikander. The former is menacing and controlling in his role, but also brings black humour with excellent delivery and a shockingly good dance sequence. Alicia Vikander portrays the humanoid Ava with such careful precision, every expression and every step is measured to perfection and I could listen to her talk all day.
Alex Garland brings his already accomplished novelistic craft to the project, as well as flexing his directorial muscles, bringing refreshing creativity and visual flair. In ‘Ex Machina’, he sets and establishes a scary setting in which his absorbing concept can be explored, and though a couple of minor plotholes leave things unanswered, his ideas are given ample room to develop. What stands out and has a lasting effect though are the actions of the fascinating characters, and the consequences of them. Gleeson and Vikander’s man and machine connection make this glimpse at what the future may hold far more human than Her, as Oscar Isaac pulls the strings of reclusive genius Nathan, the manipulator of this modern monster of a film.
Mark Wahlberg continues his questionable vein of form, taking the titular role in British director Rupert Wyatt’s remake of 1974 film ‘The Gambler’. Mimicking the great James Caan who had the lead in the original written by James Toback, he plays literature professor by day, compulsive risk-taker by night Jim Bennett. Set in a greasy depiction of Downtown Los Angeles, Bennett recklessly lands himself in debt with both the proprietor of an underground casino and menacing mob boss Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams). Turning to wily loan shark Frank (John Goodman) and befriending impressionable student Amy (Brie Larson), he aims to dig a way out of the mess he got himself into, but like a petulant child refuses to take responsibility for his actions. With his fate likely to be decided on the turning of a card, can he turn his luck around and get everything he has ever wanted or is he destined to lose it all?
With an intriguing premise and an impressive cast, the foundations were laid for an exciting watch. In the gambling den scenes with the background clinking of the chips and whirling of the roulette wheel, a suspenseful buzz is achieved. Unfortunately, the buzz soon wears off and the disappointingly William Monahan’s shoddy script allows the protagonist to continually spout off quasi-intellectual speeches about his philosophies on life and how unfair the world is. Somehow, his garbling brings about an unfeasible romantic subplot that has about as much sexual tension as a trip to the chiropodist. The incoherent narrative isn’t helped by the distracting shuffle-all soundtrack, tacky visual effects and a series of odd camera tricks and weird angles that look as though they’ve been compiled for a cinematographer’s show reel.
Mark Wahlberg is horribly miscast as Bennett, and you never quite understand or see any reasoning behind anything that he does, meaning that his character arc is virtually a straight line. The veteran actors supporting do offer some respite from the intolerable central performance, in particular the aforementioned John Goodman and also Jessica Lange, who plays Bennett’s wealthy mother who appears to have bailed him out one too many times in the past. Brie Larson, who is usually so good if you take her appearances in Short Term 12 and The Spectacular Now as examples of her talent, is vacant in a role that serves purely as a bad storytelling device.
The main problem behind ‘The Gambler’ is that we, as an audience, should always be rooting for Jim Bennett’s gamble to pay off eventually despite his flaws but by the final act, I really didn’t care. The idea of the self-loathing addict has so much potential and there are countless possibilities to exploring the themes and dissecting the psychological torment of someone who never really feels like a winner, choosing to chase the unreachable dream. For me, Wyatt’s glossy, haphazard execution is ultimately a wasted opportunity that should have been odds-on for success, and no matter how much Bennett appeared to hate himself, I think I hated him just that little bit more.
An intense, edge of your seat, drama about jazz music would appear about as plausible as a feel-good flick in a funeral parlour but that’s exactly what director Damien Chazelle achieves with ‘Whiplash’. Music school drummer Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is young and impressionable, determined to be the next big sensation of the jazz scene. Standing in his way is intimidating conductor/mentor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) whose exceptionally high standards lend him extreme methods of coaching. Are his unorthodox teaching techniques necessary means to an end or is he bitterly blocking the threshold to stardom because he himself feels he has underachieved?
The plot holds aloft idols such as Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, heralding the importance of leaving a legacy at all costs. In one strong scene when a dinner table discussion gets heated, the protagonist argues ‘I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was’, but at what lengths will he stop at to be remembered? A romantic subplot provides light relief from the intensity of the drumming scenes but treads familiar water, as Andrew weighs up his priorities. The narrative unfolds intelligently, helped along by terrifically sharp editing, developing and maintaining a solid rhythm that builds to a breathtaking crescendo that will send you out of the cinema with sweating palms and jelly legs.
For a while Miles Teller has mostly lurked, albeit effectively, in the supporting casts of films but now, like his character, he has his moment in the spotlight. He doesn’t disappoint, and gives an impressive performance in the lead role, successfully making Andrew Neiman funny and likeable but most importantly forcing us to believe how desperate he is to be the very best at what he does. However, the ‘Oscar bait’ aspect of this vehicle is heavily geared towards that of the supporting actor J.K. Simmons who plays the overbearing Fletcher. With his looming screen presence he simply commands every frame he is in, and gives the role a fascinating streak of unpredictability. You never know if he’s going to throw a cymbal at a student, spit expletives in their face or put a comforting arm around them, though it is rarely the latter.
Because of the niche subject matter, ‘Whiplash’ probably won’t get the extensive distribution of other nominations so make the effort to see it while you can. With just his second feature, Chazelle presents the plucky underdog of the season, flying the flag for small budget independent filmmaking, and brilliantly makes its intimate New York jazz environment a microcosm for achieving something meaningful in life, and gaining respect and validation for your efforts, whatever field they may be in. The nostalgic glitzy setting and smooth soundtrack hark back to classic cinema even though the themes and ideas at its double-beating heart are forever relevant.
Chris Kyle is the most deadly sniper in US military history, with an astonishing 160 kills to his name. His stretch as a Navy SEAL on and off-duty is documented in war drama ‘American Sniper’, directed by Clint Eastwood and based on Kyle’s autobiography of the same name. Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was sent to Iraq following the September 11 attacks of 2001, leaving behind his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) to become a highly respected figure among the American forces, and dubbed ‘the Devil of Ramadi’ by Iraqi insurgents. The film has a clear target, aiming directly at the mindset of the protagonist, and how circumstances of warfare affect him psychologically as he serves four tours for god and country. Shrouded in controversy because of the arguably misguided patriotism and political themes throughout, this biopic isn’t your typical war movie, but is the filmmaker’s directorial vision as clear as that of the marksman himself?
A hugely intense opening scene immediately places the audience at the heart of the conflict, and we get a glimpse into the laid-back psyche of Chris Kyle before his run of kills. Flashbacks and the structure of the narrative then go on to illustrate an acute character study, tracking the pressures he faced during his childhood, his American Dream-like family life and of course his experiences of the war on terror. Bradley Cooper’s impressive performance goes a long way to giving a strong portrayal of Kyle, his inner traumas demonstrated through his facial expressions rather than his words. His priorities become increasingly blurred as his need to defend his country outweighs his responsibilities as a husband, and as a father. Creative flourishes to dramatise scenarios and introduce an arch-nemesis figure cheapen the true events as the plot develops, meaning that the marital drama, which is possibly the most interesting aspect of the film plays second fiddle to repetitive shoot-outs. As a result of this, Sienna Miller doesn’t get the screen time she deserves as Kyle’s suffering wife, but when she is called upon, she is used effectively.
Despite being marred by a fictionally heightened sense of heroism, ‘American Sniper’ is a solid addition to the modern-war genre, boosted by the two central acting performances. Cooper’s turn offers some insight and understanding of the narrow mental state of those fighting for their country, and the struggles they encounter when trying to adjust back into their day-to-day lives. I feel there’s been much stronger leading male performances across the year of cinema, but the timing of the release and the subject matter have no doubt contributed to his third consecutive Oscar nomination. Chris Kyle, though not an entirely likeable personality, has a fascinating story that deserves to be told and Clint Eastwood delivers a cinematic tribute that strays between gripping and grim.
In 2009, the Walt Disney Company bought over Marvel Entertainment, giving them full access to their vast back catalogue of characters and stories. It was only a matter of time before a merger project would surface, combining their strengths to give comic-book heroes the Disney studio treatment. Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams and set in the Americ-asian fictional city of San Fransokyo, ‘Big Hero 6’ is based on a comic of the same name from 1998 and documents the origins of a team of crime-fighting superheroes. Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a teen genius, but uses his intelligence to partake in illegal robot wars for monetary gain rather than applying himself academically, much to the dismay of his protective older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney). In an attempt to change his brother’s ways and put him on the right track, Tadashi takes Hiro to his university science lab and introduces him to his professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell) and Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable robot he had created to serve as a caring healthcare companion. When disaster strikes leaving Hiro in turmoil, will he use his brain power for good or bad?
Narratively, it is very much a film of two halves as interesting characters and friendships are developed carefully and tenderly in the opening hour or so before the plot descends into more traditional, or generic, superhero fare as the Marvel roots begin to grow. The laughs come mostly from Baymax who is unknowingly hilarious and the physicality of the way his bubbly stature is animated only adds to the fun. Hiro and Baymax’s friendship has so much promise, and almost has a mismatched Kirk-and-Spock-like quality to it as both their similarities and their differences hold them together. The scripting sadly loses its early invention and creativity as the story develops, treading dangerously close to Scooby-Doo territory as the gang of goodies run around solving problems in order to unmask the villain of the piece. That being said, the visuals are stunning throughout, particularly in sequences involving Hiro’s magnetic micro-bots which can twist and transform to take any shape his imagination can conjure up.
‘Big Hero 6’ is an enjoyable watch that successfully opens up the exciting, limitless avenues of possibilities of the Disney/Marvel collaboration, even if the balance quite right this time. As a buddy comedy, it definitely works but as a comic-book origins fable, there’s something lacking. With the distraction of an action-laden final act along with some messy sub-plotting, the likeable characters aren’t given the emotive resolution they deserve and that is what Disney classics usually carry off so well. Flaws aside, we have been introduced to the brilliant Baymax and that alone is enough to make you leave the cinema with a smile on your face.