The Watchers

The Watchers

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015 - Part Two

The Hallow (Ireland/English dialogue/97 min)

Adam (Joseph Mawle – BBC’s Ripper Street) and Clare (Bojana Novakovic – Channel 4’s Shameless) set up home in a mill house deep within Ireland’s remote woods. They move there for peace and quiet, for Adam to get on with his work, but soon realise they have neighbours: evil Irish faeries who want to steal their baby.

Your enjoyment of director Corin Hardy’s first feature film, The Hallow, depends on whether you’re a horror connoisseur. A couple of minutes in, you know exactly where it’s going; no surprises here. At no point in the narrative will you be stunned, thinking, “I never saw that coming!” If the last few sentences have put you off, best leave well alone. Saying that, Hardy’s film looks good, despite being on a fraction of the budget of US horror fare, plus there are some smartly constructed jolts and tense scenes.

Hardy and cinematographer Martijn van Broekhuizen take full advantage of the forest location. In the daylight, the landscape looks ominous, sinister, the last place you’d want to take your dog for a walk! At night, it’s something straight out of a twisted fairy-tale, trees dotted with moonlight, mist spreading across the ground, plenty of shadows for something to hide.

Most low budget horrors fall flat when the monster is revealed: a man in a suit or ropey CGI. The Hallows faeries are not only convincing, they’re creepy as hell. They look human, but their skin is melted, stretched across their bones; thorns and spikes pushing through their flesh.

You can tell Hardy has watched plenty of horror films; he knows how to pace the scares, sometimes making you jump with no build up or warning. Several scenes take place with the sun going down, Adam and his family alone in the house. You know the faeries are going to get in, but what happens is still nerve-wracking.

There are no twists or surprises in The Hallow; it goes from A-to-B and never veers off-course. Thanks to some sharp direction from Hardy, it is fun to watch and perfect if you’re at home and fancy a late-night scare. Hardy is currently filming The Crow remake, which, when I hear about it, makes me want to press my hands over my ears, shut my eyes, and pretend it’s not happening. After seeing The Hallow, I’m intrigued to see what he’ll come up with.

3 out of 5

Iona (UK/English dialogue/110 min)

The closing film of EIFF 2015, Iona stars Ruth Negga (TV series Love/Hate and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the title character, seeking refuge in her hometown on the Inner Hebrides with her teenage son Bull (Ben Gallagher, his feature film debut), having survived a violent attack from a police officer.

Iona is a slow-burning drama, with plenty of lengthy shots of the cast all staring intently. With writer/director Scott Graham’s second feature film, it’s not about what characters are saying, it’s what the people of this tiny community are hiding from each other; buried feelings and secrets.

Everyone gives their all acting-wise. Negga gives a subtle, complex performance as Iona; she’s only home because she’s desperate, the island holding plenty of bad memories for her. Gallagher is equally impressive as Iona’s teenage son, struggling to cope, having murdered his mother’s attacker; trying and failing to find his place in the strict Christian community of the island. Douglas Henshall (ITV’s Primeval) gives a smart, reigned in performance as the clouded, brooding Daniel, grieving for his late wife, yet carrying on his affair with Iona, which began over a decade ago.

Cinematographer Yoliswa von Dallwitz takes full advantage of the island location, giving us shots that are both bleak and stunning. Religion is an ever prevalent theme in Iona, the people on the island having a close bond, a relationship with God, but for Iona, that relationship has broken down, something von Dallwitz explores in the visuals. The landscape at times can be bleak, unforgiving, but also wonderfully beautiful as we are shown the sun rising on the coast, or hilltop views across the island.

Iona’s hard-to-ignore problem is its running time; sometimes it’s not so much a slow burner as a drawn-out flicker. It doesn’t need to be two hours; the odd scene dragging on for longer than it should. I get that much of Graham’s film is about the secrets of a small community, how the lies and bottled-up emotions are a drain on everyone, the cast much rather giving grim stares than doing the hard thing of talking about what’s going on, but Iona is dotted with needlessly overlong scenes. You could cut the film down to around ninety minutes and none of the characters would suffer.

There’s a lot going on with Iona; a character study that really gets inside the heads of everyone onscreen. The trouble is it goes on for longer than needed. It’s a strong film, with some first-rate performances, but some will be put off by how Graham takes his time getting to the intense and draining finale.

3 out of 5

Last Days in the Desert (USA/English dialogue/100 min)

Ewan McGregor has played Obi-Wan Kenobi, it makes sense that he would one day play Jesus. Though if you’re expecting something straight out of Sunday school, think again; this is a subdued, symbolic version of Jesus’s forty days in the desert.

Writer/director Rodrigo Garcia’s film starts off well into Jesus’s journey. He can no longer speak to God and begins to doubt his faith. In the desert he meets a family. The mother (Ayelet Zurer) is dying, the father (Ciarán Hinds) tries not to think of his wife’s illness, wanting his teenage son (Tye Sheridan) to stay with him in the desert, the son however wanting to leave and make a life for himself in Jerusalem. The devil (also McGregor) makes a bet with Jesus; if he can satisfy everyone in this family, fulfil their wishes, then the devil will leave Jesus alone.

Last Days in the Desert is one of those films where you only get out of it what you put in. The story itself is a simple one (if it were a novel it would barely make it past ten pages), but Garcia has crammed the film with minute-after-minute of religious and philosophical discussion, plus heaps of symbolism. The parallels between God and Jesus/the father and son are obvious; Hinds’ father expecting Sheridan not to question him, to trust him, even when Hinds gets things wrong. One of my favourite scenes – which doesn’t spoil anything by mentioning it; I’m assuming everyone knows how Jesus finally ends up – is towards the end, Jesus walking through what is meant to be the dried up Dead Sea, the lowest land mass on earth, turning to the devil and saying, “This is where I leave you.”

McGregor gives one of his best performances for a while as Jesus and the devil. McGregor’s Son of God is defeated, softly spoken, but angry at his Father, bottling up his rage. This Jesus is not the kind, wise man you read about in Primary school: he doubts himself, no longer having a purpose. The easiest thing as the devil would be to overact, make him this sneering, clichéd villain. McGregor wisely avoids this, portraying the devil as a petulant child, who is always right, never listens to anyone, raging if he doesn’t get his way. Garcia has Jesus and the devil played by the same actor, but they are two totally different people.

Hinds (an appallingly underrated actor) is outstanding as the father. You can see why Sheridan is frustrated with him; to anyone on the outside it’s as if Hinds has plans for his son, his son having no say on his future. The truth is that Hinds is terrified. If his son remains in the desert, he can protect him; if his son goes to Jerusalem he has no idea what will happen to him. Hinds has no faith in people, hence why he and his family live out in the desert. It is only when this father meets Jesus that his faith is mended.

Last Days in the Desert is possibly the most stunning film you will see in 2015. It helps when you have Birdman and Gravity’s Oscar-winning cinematographer on-board; Emmanuel Lubezki. Shot in southern California, Lubezki used only natural lighting, surrounding the characters with rocky hills, bare trees and oppressing skies, the landscape giving the film this epic grandeur, whilst also showing how insignificant these people are compared to the world around them.

Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ didn’t just miss the point, it wasn’t even firing in the right direction (show us scene-after-scene of Saw-style torture porn Gibson, but why is Jesus doing all this? WHY?!). Garcia’s take on the Son of God (Yeshua, as he is called here, the Hebrew name for Jesus) is never pretentious or self-absorbed; it’s moving and wears its heart on its sleeve, getting you to ponder the same questions the characters ask themselves.

Not everyone will like Garcia’s film; there are some out there who will hate every single minute of it. If you like your dramas thoughtful, powerful, and hugely ambitious, then you need to make sure you see this. The more I stop and think about Last Days in the Desert, the more I’m in awe of it.

4 out of 5

The Legend of Barney Thomson (UK/English dialogue/93 min)

The Legend of Barney Thomson is Robert Carlyle’s (Trainspotting, The Full Monty, The World Is Not Enough) directorial debut, a wickedly dark comedy with Carlyle as Thomson, a clueless barber who accidently murders his colleague. Thomson tries to cover up his actions, but is forced to kill more people when the truth threatens to rear its ugly head.

For Carlyle, the stars were all in alignment with his film. Richard Cowan and Colin McLaren’s screenplay is minute-after-minute barmy and hysterical, the British all-star cast gleefully milking it for all it’s worth. Despite Thomson being a serial killer, you’re cheering him on, wanting him to get away with it because he’s so bumbling and useless. For Thomson, this is an accident that spirals completely out of control.

As good as Carlyle is, it’s Emma Thompson who steals the show here as Barney’s no messing, rough-around-the-edges, Glaswegian mother. Thompson is scarcely recognisable under the heaps of make-up to make her look older. She’s fiery, does whatever the hell she wants, and has the accent absolutely spot on (“I dunnae think ya heard me… IT’S MA BINGO NIIIIGHT!!”). A Scottish friend of mine said she brought back memories of his grandmother, she was that convincing and comical.

Ray Winstone shows he can do more than play the gravel-voiced hard man. As a London copper who simply doesn’t get Scotland or its people, he proves he’s more than capable at comedy. Winstone wants to go in, guns blazing, smash a few heads, but gets shot down time-and-again by his colleagues (Extras’ Ashley Jenson, on marvellous shouty form) and his superior (Tom Courtenay – exasperated by anyone and everyone around him; having body parts mailed to the police station just about tipping him over the edge).

The Legend of Barney Thomson opened this year’s EIFF, and you can see why. It’s riotous and ridiculous without ever losing its audience, everyone on screen is having a grand old time, which shows in the performances, it’s fast paced, and has plenty of fond nods and gags aimed at Glasgow and Glaswegians. Carlyle’s first film in the director’s chair is one EIFF’s best films; make sure you watch it.

4 out of 5

Love & Mercy (USA/English dialogue/121 min)

Bill Pohlad’s second film as director (having been producer on Brokeback Mountain, The Tree of Life and 12 Years a Slave) is no straightforward biopic of a million selling recording artist. Based on the life of Beach Boys singer/songwriter/music genius Brian Wilson, we cut back-and-forth between two key moments in Wilson’s career: his twenties (played by There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano), when Wilson wrote Pet Sounds, and his mental health was becoming more-and-more noticeable, and his forties (played by Grosse Point Blank’s John Cusack), Wilson a recluse, held prisoner by his mental illness as well as his legal guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

You’re lucky if you get one awards-worthy performance in a film; Love & Mercy has several. Best of the bunch (no disservice to anyone) is Paul Dano as the young Wilson. Not only does Dano look and sound like him (Dano performed the spookily similar vocals himself), he gets Wilson’s mannerisms absolutely right. In brilliantly shot, fast paced studio scenes, the camera zig-zagging and swerving in every direction, we see Wilson’s unbridled joy while he is recording, child-like in his excitement and coming up with never before tried ideas straight out of nowhere. Dano also gives us the other side of Wilson, his know-no-bounds kindness, his vulnerability, how afraid he is when his mental health worsens, and his growing paranoia. It’s a staggering, complicated, give it all you’ve got performance.

While John Cusack might not look or sound much like Wilson, he gets the behaviour, the ticks, the social awkwardness completely spot on. It’s tragic to watch, Dano’s cheerful young man, full of energy, has gone, replaced by someone who is shy, frightened, speaking in whispers, prepared to do whatever he is told, terrified of confrontation. The kind, child-like Wilson is still there, but buried under heaps of medication which he has no say over. With most biopics, you already know how things will end because the main character is a worldwide superstar, every bit of their life up there on the internet or in the media for all to see. While most people are aware of what happened to Wilson, that doesn’t stop the film from being a gripping watch; you want Cusack to escape from his living hell.

Paul Giamatti, when not taking Hollywood’s money and running for the hills (I’m looking at you, San Andreas) is staggeringly talented. Here, as Dr. Landy, he is an odious man with a shit-eating grin, saying his actions are for Wilson’s benefit, when really he is controlling, a bully, bleeding Wilson’s fortune dry and calling it therapy. Giamatti can be frightening to watch, speaking in a soft, gentle voice until he hears something he doesn’t like, firing off into this child-like rage. The main reason you cheer for Wilson is down to Giamatti and his intimidating, perfect performance.

Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, the love interest, but it’s not your typical, seen it all before role. She falls for Cusack’s Wilson, then discovers how he is being mistreated by Dr. Landy. Melinda may be a car seller, using her looks to get the punters to part with their cash, but she is a smart, feisty woman who doesn’t get scared or intimidated, Landy foolishly underestimating her. It’s clear from the moment she meets Wilson, Melinda doesn’t want him for his money, she loves this man, doing whatever she can to rescue him.

Love & Mercy isn’t a biopic with great performances, marred by an average script or cinematography. Pohlad uses some smart tricks to show us Wilson’s mental health go into free fall, a stand-out scene involving Paul Dano having dinner with friends. We realise the sound of cutlery, the clangs, the jarring noise, is merging, ending up on a loud, continuous loop. Wilson tries ignoring it, but becomes more and more distressed. There are a number of scenes with young Wilson in a quiet studio. He puts on his headphones and all he hears is harsh, discordant sound, tearing the headphones from his ears. It’s clever, creative stuff!

Like the best music biopics, the soundtrack has plenty of perfect, sing along songs where you can’t help but do a little dance in your seat. It’s impossible not to sing along to Wouldn’t It Be Nice or move around to Good Vibrations. There’s a lovely moment where we watch Wilson in the studio recording God Only Knows, going from shot-to-shot as we see him discussing his vision with the band, tinkering with the instruments and trying things that had never been done before (placing hair pins inside a grand piano to give it a rattling, clinking sound).

Pohlad’s biopic is flawless, up there with Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There or Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Nowhere Boy. Thrilling and mesmerising, Love & Mercy isn’t just one of EIFF’s best, it’s one of the best films of 2015.

5 out of 5

The Messenger (UK/English dialogue/96 min)

When I read the write-up in this year’s EIFF programme, The Messenger was one I didn’t want to miss. It sounded like the British, dirt-under-your-nails version of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. Jack is known down his local as a fruit cake; he sits in a corner with his pint, talking to himself. The truth is he’s not mad, he can see the dead.

Sadly, BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning director David Blair’s latest is nowhere near as good as it should be. Andrew Kirk’s screenplay ticks off virtually every ghost story cliché; there is nothing remotely new here, not even a genre tradition with a slight twist. The Messenger’s entire ninety-odd minutes have been done before.

The cast (including Misfits’ Robert Sheehan; Lily Cole) all do their best, but they’re given worn out, sometimes unintentionally funny dialogue. Rants about how the dead choose you because you have “the gift”, how this is more like a curse than a blessing, how you wish you could live like everyone else – they’re all here. All of the characters here are underwritten. We see Jack’s childhood during several flashbacks – explaining why he’s a loner, why he’s not just damaged because he’s seen dead people all his life, other things went on – though they feel like they were added in later, having nothing significant to do with the narrative. The only reason we’re given as to why Emma (Lily Cole) offers to help Jack is because she’s his sister; we learn nothing about her character, no digging beneath the surface, only that she’s a bit bored staying at home in her boyfriend’s swanky flat, drinking wine all day.

Ian Moss’ cinematography does the job, but it’s nothing special; a dim, depressing-looking palette that’s been used in numerous British films.

The Messenger becomes tiresome after a while. If you’re going to dredge up the same, seen-it-dozens-of-times-before formula, then why bother? It fails as a ghost story, as a psychological study; it fails at near enough everything. Search round for ITV’s afterlife starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln, which had ideas, scares, compassion, plus a crafty sense of humour, all AWOL from Blair’s newest entry on his CV.

2 out of 5

Turbo Kid (Canada, New Zealand/English dialogue/89 min)

Turbo Kid is a ridiculous amount of fun for anyone who loves ‘80s action or sci-fi films (Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, George Miller’s Mad Max 2, or John Carpenter’s They Live!): it’s smart, gory, and has its tongue firmly in its cheek.

In a post-apocalypse world, Turbo Kid (Munro Chambers), obsessed with anything-and-everything ‘80s, even dressing up like a superhero, keeps himself-to-himself, not trusting anyone, until he meets the beautiful and cheery Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), the two of them suddenly finding themselves the targets of a violent, take-no-prisoners biker gang.

Turbo Kid is made on a shoe-string budget, but everyone involved makes the most of every penny. Half the fun of Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell’s film is that it looks like a cheap ‘80s sci-fi. The visuals are clearly Verhoeven-inspired, with geysers of blood being launched at the screen. It’s not barbaric, it’s not realistic, it’s so over-the-top, you can’t help but burst out laughing. A scene guaranteed to make you roar involves a henchman having several torsos land and pile up on his head, looking like some gore-covered kebab spit.

All of the actors onscreen are clearly having a great time, everybody hamming it up. Best of the bunch is Michael Ironside (Scanners, Top Gun, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone) as the film’s villain Zeus, playing the role much like Brian Blessed’s performance in Flash Gordon: like he’s onstage at The Globe, but is having plenty of fun. Aaron Jeffrey enjoys himself as a gunslinger out of every Clint Eastwood film ever made; gravel-voiced and giving everyone he meets a cold, don’t-wanna-mess-with-me stare. Leboeuf should be Jar Jar Binks irritating with how bright and happy she always is, but is actually funny as hell whenever she is onscreen; a great contrast to Chambers’ mistrusting, forced to grow up Turbo Kid.

Worthy of a mention is Le Matos, who produced the film’s score, who obviously live and breathe anything ‘80s. Whatever synthesiser the band used to come up with the music, it has to be well-and-truly exhausted; drum machines and sequencers turning up every five minutes in Turbo Kid.

While it harks back to the ‘80s, Turbo Kid has plenty of its own ideas to make you rush out and buy it on DVD. A deliriously violent and nostalgic ninety minutes.

4 out of 5

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