Slow West (2015, John McLean)

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“Scotland is far far away…”

1870, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young Scots aristocrat travelling through the wilderness to find his errant sweetheart Rose (Caren Pistorius) who fled to America with her crofter father, John Ross (Rory McCann). Though the story takes place during the Highland Clearances when landowners forced tenants from the land to make way for livestock there’s another reason for the Ross’s leaving which only becomes clear as the film progresses. Jay is hopelessly ill-equipped for his search. Though tender in years Jay represents an old aristocratic order which has no meaning in this New World. “We’re all sons of bitches…” says one character when he mentions his father’s a Lord.

Jay finds a protector in the form of Irish bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) who saves him from a trio of runaway Confederate soldiers. Offering to accompany Jay on his journey for a price, Silas has his own agenda. The Ross’s have a $2000 bounty on their heads and Silas hopes the youngster can lead him to his prize before a rival (Ben Mendolsohn) and his gang of killers gets to them first. This set-up seems simple enough and with a running time of just 85 minutes it seems obvious where this is all heading. Jay and Silas even feel like archetypes rather than fully formed characters. Jay is the romantic dreamer who follows his heart. Silas, an Eastwood-style loner, right down to his stubble and cheroot permanently hanging from the corner of his mouth. Rose a damsel in distress. Having presented these archetypes to us McLean then subverts our expectations of how they will behave during the final twenty minutes of the movie.

Slow West is an interesting addition to the modern revisionist Western though I liked it more afterwards when I had time to reflect on the film’s rejection of romanticism in favour of pragmatism. It feels to me Robert Louis Stevenson might be a strong an influence as the many Westerns Slow West recalls. Stevenson’s stories have relatively simple plots but complex human relationships at the heart of them. There is an otherworldly feel to Slow West too partly because the landscape doesn’t feel quite right. New Zealand fills in for America although the few scenes set in Scotland are filmed here. It suits the fairytale vibe McLean is going for. The Old West seen through the looking glass. Worth mentioning the accents too which won’t be appearing on any worst Scottish accents ever lists. Kodi Smit-McPhee (Australian) does a fine understated posh Scots accent while Caren Pistorius (South African born) does an impressive job of sounding like an authentic Highlander.

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The BFI closed their Marilyn Monroe retrospective  with a Study Day on Sat 27th July. Entitled Marilyn Monroe: Understanding a Cultural Phenomenon four academics delivered talks on various aspects of her career. Lucy Bolton asked why Marilyn’s stardom has endured even among people who have never seen any of her films. Sarah Churchwell, author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, tore into the myths that have formed around Marilyn since her death. Laura Adams analysed Marilyn’s acting style and the clips back up her claim she was a much more gifted performer than many care to admit. Lastly Pamela Church-Gibson looked at the role of women in 1950′s society, and the emergence of Marilyn as a style icon during that era. Conspiracy theorists were mercifully given short thrift during the final round-table discussion. It’s also worth noting for an actress who is often dismissed as nothing more than a male fantasy figure the audience was predominantly female. 

EIFF 2015 Roundup

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Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)

Heller’s provocative comedy-drama about a teenager’s sexual and artistic awakening deservedly picked up Best International Film at EIFF 2015. Brit actress Bel Powley is astonishing as Minnie, a High School kid who begins a sexual relationship with her mother’s waster boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard). Based on a graphic novel by Pheobe Gloeckner about her own experiences growing up in 1970s’ San Francisco, animated sequences help express Minnie’s off-kilter view of the world. The film is also surprisingly sympathetic to all of the characters regardless how

questionable their behaviour is. This refusal to moralise turns what could have been a heavy-handed, obvious drama in a lesser storyteller’s hands into something more complex.

 She’s Funny That Way (Peter Bogdonavich)

Unbearable Broadway farce from the once great Bogdonavich
hampered by the miscasting of Imogen Poots who murders a New York accent like it’s Joe Pesci getting beaten
to death with a baseball bat in Casino (1995, Martin Scorsese).

Manglehorn (David Gordon Green)

Latest entry into the eclectic career of Green is the
amiable tale of an ageing small town locksmith (Al Pacino) and his tentative relationship with a local bank clerk (Holly Hunter). Pacino is mercifully restrained as a male spinster who loves his cat and writes love letters to a long gone ex lover. Manglehorn is sweet and oddly funny. Stylish too. One shot in particular might turn out to be my favourite of the year.

Misery Loves Company (Kevin Pollack)

Engaging documentary by actor turned radio host Pollack who
asks a number of stand-up comedians and comic actors a series of questions based around their motivation for trying to make people laugh. When did it start? Why do they do it? And does it make them happy? There are some amusing anecdotes and theories about how comedy works even if nobody quite has an answer to the big question of why.

Every Secret Thing (Amy Berg)

Soapy drama about the murder of a baby feels like a Lifetime
TV movie but it does at least give a rare leading role to Diane Lane, the most under appreciated actress in Hollywood.

Brotherhood of Blades

Diverting wuxia about three ruthless assassins hunting down the former head of the Imperial Court who has fallen out of favour with the new regime. Plenty of impressive fight sequences although the leads lack star charisma.