Edinburgh Film Festival Round Up: Part One
Killer Joe - A family destroying itself in an endless cycle of birth and brutal death, a deeply dark romance, and the worst advert for fried chicken ever created, are all brought together to form Killer Joe, the most accomplished work by director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, Sorcerer) in recent memory.
Based on the play by Tracy Letts (who also writes the screenplay) Killer Joe is a deliciously sleazy adaptation, set in a humid, rust ridden Texas town, slowly rotting away under the daily heat and nightly downpours. Emile Hirsch plays Chris Smith. A child of divorce he lives with his mother, whom he deeply resents. His sister Dottie (played by Juno Temple) lives with their father (Thomas Haden Church) and step-mother (Gina Gershon). Caught up in debts to some dangerous people, Smith hatches a plan with his father, to kill his mother and use the life insurance money to pay them off. To do this they hire the so-called “Killer Joe” Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a cop by day and a killer by night…for the right price. With no money to pay for Joe’s services, the family enter into a Fustian pact which propels the rest of the film to its grim, but inevitable conclusion.
Killer Joe mixes up film noir and modern days Westerns which recalls the work of the Coen Brothers, and at certain key moments, David Lynch. Friedkin directs the film like a man half his age. He seems engaged with the material and throws everything into the frame. There is energy behind the camera, and like many of his previous films, when the violence inevitably comes it is visceral, graphic, shocking and thankfully brief. To linger or prolong these moments would have lent the film an air of exploitation, which it thankfully backs away from. It would simply have been too much for people, and leave a bad taste in the mouth. But even in the darkest moments there are sly winks to the audience. There is a treacle black strip of humour, which pops up at unexpected moments, and is usually delivered by Haden Church, as the slow witted patriarch of the household. It is surprising how many laughs are in the film, and is a nice contrast to films such as Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, which swims in the same waters as Joe. Unlike The Killer Inside Me, the darkness in Killer Joe doesn’t choke you with its oppressiveness.
Hirsch is a bag of nervous energy, and manages to illicit genuine pity even as he contemplates patricide. From the moment we meet Smith, it is clear that he is out of his depth, trapped as he is by his own stupidity and greed. But really, the film belongs to two people. Matthew McConaughey proves that when he wants, he can deliver a hell of a performance. Joe Cooper is a man who is always in control. His dress code of black, his Southern politeness, and his determination to uphold the terms of an agreement, give Joe the feel of a dust bowl Satan. The trick of the Devil isn’t to trap people in an agreement. It is to offer them a chance to leave, and by their own choosing, to remain in damnation. Every time Joe is on the screen, you could sense the audience tensing up ever so slightly – the expectation of violence hangs in the air. If NC-17 movies had a shot at the Oscars, he would be an early front runner for an acting nomination.
If Joe is the darkness, then Dottie Smith is the light. Temple gives a barnstorming performance as the young sister, caught up in the black heart of her family, and accepting of her role within it. Ethereal, charming, and clearly the smartest character in the film, she is never not captivating. You can almost see the more veteran actors realise that this is a star making performance, and if there is any justice in the world, Dottie Smith will blow open some big doors for Temple.
Killer Joe is an unapologetically miserable film, full of petty dumb people, doing horrible and dumb things, over relatively small amounts of cash. It is about a family that is set in a cycle of mutually assured, and continual, destruction. It has all the high drama of a Greek play. There have been some complaints about the ending, and what it means. But really, the film tells you what will happen. These are doomed people, who cannot escape from the blood they have in their veins.
Friedkin has made a statement with this film. He is back and he is not playing around. Killer Joe is his calling card, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.
Pusher - Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher blasted onto cinema screens in 1996. The film, about a week in the lives of low level drug dealers, and the subsequent fallout following a police bust, carried with it a refreshing attitude to the crime genre. The characters looked beaten up by life. No one appeared to be making that much money from the drug deals, and even the films crime boss sat around in a greasy spoon café.
With its street level guerrilla camera work, natural dialogue and some truly great performances, Pusher, and the two subsequent films in the series, put Refn on the filmmaking map.Now in 2012, a big budget UK remake is hitting the big screen. In this post-Drive world, anything with Refn’s name attached (credited as a producer here) will attract considerable excitement and interest.
For those who have not seen the original Pusher, the plot is a very simple and familiar tale. Richard Coyle plays Frank, a dealer who through a series of bad decisions, ends up owing gang boss Milo (played by Zlatko Buric, who reprises his role from the 1996 film), a considerable sum of money. With only a few days to pay back the cash, his life goes from bad to worse. Into this mix Frank has to juggle his girlfriend, Flo (played by Agyness Deyn) and his best friend, and crime partner, Tony (Bronson Webb) as the world comes tumbling down on them all.
Let’s be honest, any remake of Pusher was going to face an uphill struggle, but it is still disappointing that the film doesn’t even seem to understand what made the 1996 film stand out from the crowd, and instead seems content to enter the ranks of clichéd British crime films. A list that sadly grows longer with each passing year. Pusher ’12 makes a stylistic choice to go with a glossy, neon stained approach, and for the most part it does stand apart visually. But sadly the film doesn’t do nearly enough to make itself distinct from the first film in its approach to the story. It is pretty much a beat for beat remake, only this time it is in High Definition. And what changes do exist, are for the worst. The point of Pusher wasn’t the plot. It was the attitude. A remake could have played around with expectations and gone in new directions, and still retained that spirit. But it was not to be.
The major flaw in the film is the casting. None of the actors really fit into the roles that they are given. The fact of the matter is none of them look like they have been beaten down by this world. Coyle simply does not work as Frank. He imbeds the character with far too much intelligence, so that when he makes stupid decisions, the audience loses sympathy with him. In the original, Frank is a slob, who is smarter than most of his compatriots, but is still someone you could believe would make the wrong choices. This problem is further exemplified by Frank’s relationship to Tony. Coyle and Webb do not come across as best friends who would go out to nightclubs and joke around together. Webb is so young, that at times it feels like Coyle is his father, and they are going out on their first drug deal as a family. Deyn is perfectly adequate in her role but suffers from playing a watered down version of the character. The relationship between Frank and Flo was one of the most interesting things about Pusher, and is key to making the sucker punch of an ending work. In the remake most of this detail is removed, resulting in audiences being left to scratch their heads at the motivation behind the ultimate decision that she makes. There is also a rather distasteful scene where Flo injects herself with heroin, and then slowly puts herself into a warm bath looking every inch the supermodel that Deyn is in real life. It has all the subtlety of a Flake advert and does not help the film industry fight off accusations that it glamorises drug use. The best actor is Buric who seems to be having a lot of fun revisiting the role like an old friend. But again, why watch this version, when he is every bit as good in Pusher ‘96, and you get the bonus of seeing the third film in the series focus entirely on him.
The standout from the film is the soundtrack by Orbital, which frankly is telling a better story than the one we are watching on screen. I may listen to the soundtrack again; it is highly unlikely that I will ever watch the film again. Pusher ’12 has double the budget, and half the soul of the original film. It offers nothing new, and you leave the cinema wondering what the point of it all was. On the plus side it makes you appreciate just how special the Refn film continues to be even now, and that can only be a good thing.
Grabbers - Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Festival so far, Grabbers is a delightfully silly romp which brings to mind the chaotic fantasies of the 1980s Amblin films. It is a mix of Gremlins, Tremors and the works of HP Lovecraft, but with a sweet Irish twist.
Set on a remote island off the coast of Ireland, Grabbers sees a bunch of misfits thrown together, in order to battle a large alien beastie which has taken residence just off the coastline. And to make matters worse, it is starting to lay eggs. We have seen this film before in other guises, and while Grabbers doesn’t even attempt to put an original spin on things, it makes up for it with a boatload of charm.
Richard Coyle, in his second film of the Festival (after Pusher), plays an alcoholic police officer who has barely needed to lift a finger in the sleepy community. His partner, played by Ruth Bradley, is from the big city, and carries baggage of her own. It will therefore come as no surprise that both characters are forced to adapt when suddenly faced with a crisis of epic proportions. Surrounding these two characters are a host of the usual tropes from monster movies. The scientist who can hand out the films exposition (played here by Russell Tovey), the local drunk who somehow starts the whole mess, the local gossip, etc…
There is something comforting about seeing a film which successfully pulls off the formula of a monster feature, and by the final act you are actively rooting for the characters to survive. Ruth Bradley in particular is a stand out, with a really funny performance. For the most part Grabbers keeps the monsters off the screen, with only occasional flashes here and there. But when the third act hits, the special effects are surprisingly great for what is a low budget feature, and some impressive action sequences are pulled off. The baby alien squids in particular are well done, and have a Gremlins vibe to them. The soundtrack isn’t nearly as successfully pulled off. While perfectly serviceable, it is intrusive at times, and you find yourself wishing that it would be scaled back to let scenes breath. Sometimes silence is just as an effective tool heightening tension. There are also far too many aerial shots of lovely Irish scenery. At times you feel like the movie has stopped in order to allow for a tourist advert to be inserted. But these are minor quibbles. This is a solid late night horror feature fare which ticks all the boxes, and in a just world, should gain an audience on both the big and small screen.
Rent-a-Cat (Rentaneko) - I am not familiar with the previous work of director Naoko Ogigami, but after being utterly charmed by this warm and quirky film, I will be digging out some of her other work. Rentaneko (Rent-a-Cat) is brilliant.
Mikako Ichikawa plays Sayoko, a young woman who is unlucky in love and seems to have an uncanny ability to attract cats to her house. She yearns to be married, but being given the title of “crazy cat lady” prevents her from gaining this happiness. Instead, each day she pulls a cart, offering cats for rent for people who are similarly lonely. The film is about those that she encounters on these trips, and how their lives are changed by the simple pleasure of having a pet in their lives. While aching loneliness hangs over each frame of film, it is never a maudlin experience. It would be very surprising if you didn’t leave the cinema with a big smile on your face. Ichikawa holds the film together. She is quirky, and a genuinely gifted comedy performer. You find yourself laughing at the simplest of her actions, such as when she drinks a beer for the very first time. But she also manages to convey genuine sadness, and you spend the film wishing that she will finally get what she wants. But far be it for me to spoil the ending of the film…
It goes without saying that if you are a lover of cats, this film will be like a cruise missile into the middle of your heart. By the end of the film, you might feel like you actually know one or two of them. Like nearly everything else in the film, they brought a smile to my face. This is heart-warming filmmaking, and I would encourage everyone to take a chance and seek it out. You are guaranteed to leave the theatre with a spring in your step.
Fred - This is a hard review to write. The emotional response to this very simple film very much depends on your own experiences that you bring with you into the screening room. Seeing the slow decline of a family member is never an easy thing, and hard decisions that have to be made on that journey. Fred is about one of those decisions.
Set in and around a single location, the film sees an adult brother and sister head back home to convince their father Fred (Elliot Gould) that their mother, who is suffering from dementia, needs to be in a care home, and further to this, that he should join her. But this isn’t a drama with big speeches, or great family revelations. It is almost mundane about how these decisions, which transform families, are made. Bigger arguments are had when one of the family eats some bagels, than when the family sit down and speak to Fred about the move. This lends the film an air of realism that is not often seen in similar dramas and is why it is likely to hit some audience members harder than others. It is also a funny film at times. The relationship between a music therapist, who in a heart breaking scene helps the mother gain moments of lucidity during a sing-a-long, and the brother (played by the always great Fred Melamed), pulled laughter out of a difficult situation.
Elliot Gould impresses as the titular character, and it is good to see him flexing his acting muscles. On the surface there doesn’t appear to be much going on with his character, but just one look at the sadness in his eyes, conveys more emotion than a thousand speeches ever would.
Fred does stumble here and there. There is a dream sequence which is simply not needed. It bashes the audience over the head. In a film which is so quiet in its moments of drama, it feels out of place, and could be quite easily cut out. Dream sequences rarely work well, and the symbolism of the scene doesn’t tell half as much as the looks that are traded between the characters. However director Richard Ledes has made a powerfully small film, which is clearly a very personal work. But with its deliberately slow pace, and lack of heated drama it will be a tough sell to audiences. For those who do give it a chance, and in particular those who have had relatable events in their own lives, Fred will be a rewarding experience.