At the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the programme is categorised into strands that celebrate and showcase different aspects of cinema, and each year a nation is focussed on which highlights the ‘international’ part of EIFF. In 2015, Mexico is the country in the limelight and Gabriel Ripstein’s debut film ‘600 Miles’, or millas in Spanish, is in the line-up, following its successful trip to the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. The crime drama unfolds within the arms trafficking underworld as friends Carson (Harrison Thomas) and Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer) smuggle weaponry from Arizona across the border to Arnulfo’s Mexican drug cartel family in an SUV. Unbeknownst to them, ATF agent Hank Harris (Tim Roth) is tracking them closely and when their paths inevitably cross, a vicious encounter leads to an unlikely road trip, simmering with threat and nerve-shredding tension.
After the burst of the housing bubble led to a global financial crisis in 2007-2008, the last person you would expect to make a film about it would be Adam McKay, the goofball director known for his work on The Other Guys and the Anchorman movies. However, the comedy filmmaker has applied his mischievous directorial style to The Big Short, a biographical drama based on Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, based around four men who saw the collapse happening before anyone else. Boasting one of the most star-studded casts in years including Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt, a stocks-and-shares saga is sold as an energetic jest-fest.
A decade has passed since the last film in the legendary ‘Rocky’ franchise, but now the Italian Stallion is back in ‘Creed’. Thankfully, Sylvester Stallone is reprising his role in just a trainer capacity and isn’t returning to the squared circle himself. The series spin-off centres around Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the fighter who went toe-to-toe with Rocky in the first two films back in the late seventies. The project is written and directed by Ryan Coogler, who made his filmmaking breakthrough with Fruitvale Station in 2013, and follows Donnie as he pursues a career in boxing but struggles with the pressure of his father’s legacy.
Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel of the same name, filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson directs abduction drama ‘Room’. Brie Larson stars as Joy Newsome, a young woman held captive with her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), and who has been imprisoned in a garden shed for seven years. With a skylight providing her only glimmer of light, she is malnourished and depressed. The narrative picks up the story on Jack’s fifth birthday as Joy, or ‘Ma’ as he calls her, decides that he is grown up enough to find out the truth about why they live in ‘room’, what has happened to her and why they desperately need to escape their evil captor (Sean Bridgers), whom they refer to as ‘Old Nick’.
Despite the horrifically morbid subject matter, there is always enough light to balance out the dark due to the clever narration and camera work which presents the small world they inhabit through Jack’s naive outlook and innocent perspective. The pace starts off slow and steady, as we, the audience, adapt to Joy and Jack’s very limited routine, and it is this careful character development and emotioneering that makes it all the more breathtaking when they take matters into their own hands. The amazing events around halfway through briefly suggest that the plot has peaked too soon, but themes are switched and the film moves in a new direction which explores both the aftermath of Joy’s trauma and Jack’s awe of his new experiences and discoveries.
For too long, Brie Larson has been mostly restricted to supporting roles but now she has the material she deserves and gives a superbly judged, emotionally charged performance in what appears to be a very challenging part to play. Also putting in an extremely mature turn is nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay, who is utterly phenomenal as Jack. The type of performance he displays is not dissimilar to that of Onata Aprile who stole the show in ‘What Maisie Knew’ a couple of years ago, which looked at divorce through the eyes of the child caught in the crossfire. The mother-and-son bond Larson and Tremblay conjure up is always believable and brings about genuinely moving scenes between the two.
We are just a short while into the year and already there is a frontrunner for the best film of 2016. ‘Room’ can be a harrowing watch at times but is powerful, essential cinema, and boasts two magnificent performances that are worthy of all the praise they will no doubt receive. Lenny Abrahamson takes a complex and controversial story and handles it sensitively, creating a remarkably rewarding film in the process. As far as I am concerned, there is no room for improvement.
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Quentin Tarantino claimed in an interview recently that he would like to be considered a Western film director and that you really need to make three for that to happen. In his second foray into the genre, following on from Spaghetti-themed slavery shoot-em-up ‘Django Unchained’, he presents ‘The Hateful Eight’; a mystery story set shortly after the American Civil War which unfolds mostly in just one room. The cast includes a selection of regular collaborators, with Samuel L. Jackson starring as bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren. When en route to local town Red Rock with three deceased outlaws in tow, he encounters John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell) and hitches a ride on his stagecoach. Before long, a blizzard strikes and they’re forced to take refuge at a haberdashery where they meet a host of unsavoury characters played by the likes of Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern. Shot in Ultra Panavision 70mm film and with a score by veteran composer Ennio Morricone, the classic Western elements are combined with Tarantino’s signature style in a concoction of wit, spit and bloody bits.
In typical fashion, the narrative is divided into ‘chapters’ which are separated by title cards but the story struggles to come into its own until the third. The opening two serve to establish the setting and get the ball rolling but the dialogue isn’t quite as sharp as we’ve come to expect from Tarantino. Maybe the period in which the film is set limits the screenplay as there’s less room for tangents and no opportunity to pepper conversations with pop culture references. The script this time feels more direct and purposeful, and drives the plot forward, which some might argue is a good thing.
When the titular eight finally come together in the cabin, like the Reservoir Dogs of the Wild West, the brewing tension and entertainment value are noticeably heightened. Because of the length of time spent in one environment, elements of theatre develop and the wider picture cleverly lends itself to this technique. Around this time, the linear structure is toyed with, Tarantino himself featuring as the narrator to add fuel to the flames of the mystery that engulfs the haberdashery. This excellent sense of playfulness and creativity provide the film with its highlights, including a gruesome flashback sequence. As the secret unravels, the running time threatens to outstay its welcome and eventually intelligence makes way for an exaggerated blood-soaked finale.
As Tarantino movies go, ‘The Hateful Eight’ has all of the attributes, good and bad, that we’ve come to associate with the accomplished yet controversial filmmaker. In his confident, self-indulgent creation, he establishes a firmer stronghold on the genre he has borrowed so much from throughout his career. While the story itself is full of villains, it represents the step forward needed for the wannabe hero of neo-Western cinema.