Being from out of town I only managed a few days at this year’s festival. I wish I had been able to see Nicolas Provost’s The Invader which I heard great things about but here’s the pick of the movies I managed to catch while I was down there.
Killer Joe (William Friedkin)
Prior to his new film the opening the Edinburgh International Film Festival William Friedkin was at the Filmhouse for a special showing of his great crime thriller The French Connection (1971). Forty years later and Killer Joe feels like the work of a hotshot young director but that’s a backhanded compliment. It’s a dark and twisted tale channelling the same skewed Americanayou find in the novels of Barry Gifford, part thriller part fairytale. Based on a play by Tracy Letts, who also provided the material for Friedkin’s earlier Bug (2006), Friedkin opens out the action so even with the dialogue heavy scenes it never seems stagey. Yet Killer Joe is all surface with not much underneath. Witty in its deconstruction of the effects of the economic crisis and an overlying moral decay at the heart of a society where monetary gain is placed above all else, the film’s main flaw is it simply does not give a damn about these people. It works effectively as post-feminist revisionist fairytale in which the female victim tames the big bad wolf but that was done better by Matthew Bright in his Freeway movies.
Grabbers (Jon Wright)
Possibly the best film I’ve seen in which a drunken Irishman kicks an alien to death, Grabbers was a pleasant surprise. Imagine an Irish Local Hero crossed with 80’s horror films like Tremors and Ghoulies and you have an idea of what to expect as a small island is invaded by squid like creatures with a taste for human blood. Richard Coyle (Pusher) is charming as the feckless Garda officer who is perked up by the arrival of an uptight colleague (Ruth Bradley) from the mainland. With a witty screenplay, impressive CGI, and a great supporting cast including Bronagh Gallagher (Pulp Fiction) Grabbers deserves to reach as wide an audience as possible.
Dragon (Peter Chan)
Highly entertaining martial arts film choreographed by star Donnie Yen with a great performance from Takeshi Kaneshiro as a troubled detective piecing together how a country bumpkin Liu Jin-xi (Yen) not only survives a confrontation with two ruthless killers but somehow leaves them both dead. Peter Chan’s film is an intriguing and thoughtful addition to the Wu Xia genre. A Chinese variation on David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence its plot grips as the audience is left wondering whether Jin-xi is who he claims to be or Xu Bia-jiu (Kaneshiro) is imagining things that aren’t there.
Shadow Dancer (James Marsh)
This understated thriller is a throwback to the kind of films that British and Irish cinema regularly produced about the Troubles in the 80’s and early 90’s. Set in 1993 just before the peace process begins to take hold Shadow Dancer is based on a novel by former journalist Tom Bradby. Director James Marsh, better known for his documentary work, has an eye for detail and the film is certainly gripping. Single mother and IRA volunteer Collette (Andrea Riseborough) finds herself forced to tout for the British security forces by MI5 operative Mac (Clive Owen) but unforeseen events put her life in serious danger as IRA hardman Mulville (David Wilmot) starts asking questions. Shadow Dancer is well acted and interesting but there is nothing here we haven’t seen before in those earlier films which were contemporaneous and had an urgency about them that is missing here.
“Frankie my friend, you owe me money.”
Sadly not a Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009, Werner Herzog) style reworking with the premise of an earlier film turned into something strange and new, this flashy remake moves the action from Copenhagen to London and mimics the style and plot of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s debut Pusher (1996, ) but fails to capture its emotional intensity. Frank (Richard Coyle) botches a drug deal after getting lifted by the police while carrying gear borrowed from amiable gangster Milo (once again played by Zlatko Burić who appeared in all three of Refn’s Pusher movies). While comparisons are inevitable Luis Prieto’s film remains watchable enough thanks to a charismatic turn from former Coupling star Coyle cast against type and the strength of Refn’s narrative which still grips from the moment Frank finds himself in trouble.
There is plenty of gangster movie posturing in Refn’s movie but there was a sense these people had inner lives; that they existed outside the clichés of the genre. In one memorable sequence the towering Serbian enforcer Radovan (Slavko Labovic) spoke of his dream of retiring from a life of ripping out kneecaps and opening a restaurant. Most of the characters seemed trapped by their circumstances be it poverty or their involvement in crime. Moments of reflection are skimmed over in the remake. There is a hamfisted attempt at conveying the human cost of Frank’s trade with a harmless old shopkeeper being leaned on a little too heavily but when Prieto cuts to a close-up of a dog sadly observing the aftermath the effect is anything but subtle.
You could understand why Kim Bodnia’s Frank worked with Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen). These two seemed like friends and Frank was a thug, smarter than Tonny but not by much. Coyle’s Frank is more intelligent and would surely figure Tony (Bronson Webb) for a liability long before he lands him in it. While Coyle and Burić are effective the rest of the cast act like they are in an episode of The Bill. Agyness Deyn looks far too healthy for a woman who is supposed to be hooked on drugs and desperate to escape from her destructive lifestyle. Pusher 2012 is an interesting film to watch for long-time admirers of Refn, though a new entry in the series would have been preferable. The film is worth seeing however for Coyle, the impressive neon-tinged visuals by cinematographer Simon Dennis, and the score by Orbital.
If you are a Lynch fan I’d hold off buying this box-set for a little while. The films are still great but there isn’t really enough to justify shelling out £48 and replacing any older and better releases in your collection. Only Dune (1984) and Blue Velvet (86) have extras while the rest are either appended with short films or in the case of Wild at Heart (90) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (92) ignored completely. Worse still there are glitches on a couple of disks. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me has three incidents where the audio jumps, the most notable when Julee Cruise is singing in the bar. Lost Highway(96) skips a full three minutes during the film’s finale.
“Mi nombre es Armando Alvarez”
Kris Kristofferson introduces Casa de mi Padre with a disclaimer which would sound like an apology for the entire film being in Spanish were it not for the man who played Sam Peckinpah’s Billy the Kid doing the talking. Instead Kristofferson’s gruff amiable delivery is more like a friendly warning, the kind Billy would make before he gunned somebody down. It is fitting because as funny as Case de mi Padre the film is also an entertaining Western put together by people who clearly have a lot of respect for the genre.
Writer Andrew Steele and director Matt Piedmont are both Saturday Night Live alumni and have worked on Ferrell’s Funny or Die website. Casa de mi Padre might seem more suited for a short sketch but you have to admire Ferrell and his posse for going all the way and making a film so defiantly out there that its best hope is finding a cult following on DVD. The Other Guys (2010, Adam McKay) worked for audiences because everybody knows the conventions of the buddy cop movie but Casa de mi Padre is Ferrell’s most esoteric film to date. Technically it may recall other retro homage’s like Machete (2010, Robert Rodriguez) or Black Dynamite (2009, Scott Sanders) with its deliberately scratchy look and dodgy editing, but Casa de mi Padre has a weirdness all of its own.
Dim bulb Armando Alvarez (Ferrell) lives and works on his father’s ranch herding cattle and hanging out with his ranchero buddies Esteban (Efren Ramirez) and Manuel (Adrian Martinez). Armando’s idyllic life is thrown into turmoil when his slick younger brother Raul (Diego Luna) returns home from the city with his beautiful girlfriend Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez). Being a male virgin more at home on the range than in the company of women it takes Armando a while to realise Sonia is the girl for him. Unbeknownst to his family favoured son Raul is a drug dealer determined to go up against the white suited leader of the local cartel (Gael Garcia Bernal) for control of the area’s narcotics trade and Armando finds himself caught in the crossfire.
Ferrell’s Spanish is impressive and delivered in deadpan while the subtitles give the impression of being put together by somebody who uses English as their second language. “I will beat you with both these hands.” Genesis Rodriguez is a real find, beautiful but capable of mixing it with the boys. Oddly enough both their performances are absolutely sincere which makes it even funnier. Mexican bromantics Bernal and Luna ham it up nicely with the latter delivering a hilarious speech about why it’s okay to sell drugs to Americans. As with The Other Guys there are social concerns present in the film but they never weigh down the narrative. Best of all is the Morricone influenced soundtrack with a belting Christina Aguilera opener and some inspired musical numbers including a terrific duet between Ferrell and Rodriguez over the final credits.
“Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on.”
Loosely based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Red Shoes is a lavish drama about a ballerina (Moira Shearer) torn between two men. Impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) demands she makes the most of her talent and gives everything up for her art including the affections of composer Julian Craster (Marcus Goring). Early on Lermontov asks her “why do you want to dance?” and she replies “why do you want to live?” Eventually she must make a choice between what she loves and whom she loves.
The work of writer/director team Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell has proven influential over the years. You can see their hand in the work of Baz Luhrmann while the recent Black Swan (2010, Darren Aranofsky) owes much to The Red Shoes. Pressburger was a Hungarian émigré who moved to Berlinto work as a journalist before turning to screenwriting. After the Nazi’s rise to power Pressburger left Germanyfor Englandfinding work in the film industry with Alexander Korda’s studio. Michael Powell worked prolifically in the 30’s providing quickly made features to meet the British film industry’s quota for home grown films. However The Edge of the World (37), loosely inspired by the evacuation of St. Kilda showed a developing style and an interest in mysticism.
Korda put Powell and Pressburger together on the war film The Spy in Black (39) and they became friends. Forming their own production called The Archers and working with total autonomy within the Rank Organisation they began to make highly distinctive and idiosyncratic films often in Technicolor, a process which saturates the frame with bright colours and would later become synonymous with the musical. During the 1940’s they created a series of classics, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (43), I Know Where I’m Going! (45), A Matter of Life and Death (46), and Black Narcissus (47).
Despite its success The Red Shoes went over budget bringing them into conflict with Rank who cut them loose. They returned to low-budget filmmaking for the underrated The Small Back Room (49), about a troubled bomb disposal expert, and then back to Technicolor for the opera Tales of Hoffman (51) but neither made much impact at the box-office. Their films became increasingly compromised by studio interference and they separated in 1957. Powell effectively destroyed his career with the haunting serial killer film Peeping Tom (1960) which caused outrage in Britainon its release. In the 60’s British cinema tended towards realism and Powell and Pressburger’s movies with their love of the fantastical, high emotions, and bright gaudy colours fell out of fashion.
A critical reappraisal of their work began in the 70’s when Martin Scorsese began to champion Michael Powell and cited The Red Shoes as being his favourite film.
“Go Get you home you fragments.”
Ralph Fiennes directorial debut sees him returning to a role he played on stage back in 2000. Together with Gladiator (Ridley Scott 2000) screenwriter John Logan, Fiennes has moved the action into a modern Balkans style war zone. Shakespeare’s play is one of his lesser known tragedies but its themes of public disaffection with the political process are certainly relevant to contemporary audiences.
Coriolanus is a war hero whose refusal to play the political game leads to his downfall. Instead of being pragmatic and flattering the people Coriolanus is brutally honest with them. They hate him for it. You can see why Fiennes wanted to bring this play to the screen in an age where spin and public opinion now play a huge part in politics. The need to be seen to be doing and saying the right things nowadays is often more important than actually doing the right thing.
Fiennes worked with director of photography Barry Ackroyd on The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow 2008) and has brought him in here to lens similarly gritty action sequences. Coriolanus incorporates actual newsreel footage into its opening scenes and then uses extras to convey riot scenes and a dissenting populace. Unfortunately the Serbian locations recall the cheap and cheerless output of straight-to-DVD action stars like Jean Claude Van-Damme and Steven Seagal.
Fiennes is physically impressive as Coriolanus, looking every inch the warrior. Acting wise he is at his best in his quieter moments, but when he gets animated and carried away with his enunciating he sends spittle flying towards his co-stars. Vanessa Redgrave is formidable as his mother, but again this depends on how theatrical you like your acting. Surprisingly it is Gerard Butler who gives the best performance. Now it is quite possible Gerard Butler has never been in a theatre in his life, but that’s not a problem because here he brings movie star charisma and understatement to his role as Tullus Aufidius, deadly rival to Coriolanus.
Coriolanus will at least provide pupils studying Shakespeare at school a decent skive during English class, but it is a long way from the best Bard adaptations. Fiennes direction is workmanlike at best, though the approach taken to the play is intelligent. When Coriolanus is banished he swears revenge and seeks out Aufidius as an ally. These scenes of bromantic longing onscreen bring the film to life, but the rest is a chore.
Audio commentary with Ralph Fiennes and a making of documentary.