A Long Way from Home

Director: Virginia Gilbert
Writer: Virginia Gilbert
Year: 2013
Cast: James Fox, Natalie Dormer, Brenda Fricker

★☆☆☆☆

Adapted from her own short story, Virginia Gilbert’s debut feature is a flimsy, insubstantial romantic comedy, built around a premise that lacks credibility from the outset. Joseph (James Fox) and Brenda (Brenda Fricker) have retired to the French town of Nimes, where they are able to enjoy the sunshine and good food, while carrying on the same banal lifestyle they led at home. Their daily routine includes Radio 4 and The Times crossword, and takes them to the same restaurant every evening, where they meet an attractive young couple, Suzanne (Natalie Dormer) and Mark (Paul Nicholls), who are on a short, romantic break. After striking up a conversation over dinner, Joseph develops an infatuation with Suzanne and starts following her around the tourist trail.

A Long Way From Home Film 2013

This never results in any confrontation, as Suzanne is surprisingly open to having an elderly stranger impose himself on her holiday; she even encourages him with some suggestive looks and mild flirtations. Her receptivity is partially explained by their shared enthusiasm for the local ruins and Mark’s irritating habit of taking excessively loud business calls, but the idea that there might be some attraction there is never remotely believable. Joseph comes across as sadly delusional, and no real explanation is given as to why that might be, despite some hints at a history of clinical depression.

The dialogue is stilted, mundane, almost ludicrously naturalistic and fails to give any psychological insight into the characters whatsoever. When delivering his lines, James Fox often looks as if he is expecting someone to immediately laugh in his face, and, more often than not, that would probably be an appropriate reaction. It is hard to know whether phrases like, ‘You can come over and use our pool any time’, are deliberately excruciating or just appallingly written, especially because there is nothing in the characters’ interactions that suggests anything untoward, or even surprising, has been said. You have to feel sorry for the actors, particularly Brenda Fricker, who comes across as admirably human in spite of the script. Her character is easily the most sympathetic and, even when she is forced to rev up her Irish accent and loudly exclaim, ‘Ah shite!’, she gives it full gusto and manages to draw a despairing laugh.

The Nimes setting is perpetually bathed in golden sunlight, presumably in an attempt to play up the holiday atmosphere. The visuals are pleasant but quickly become unbearably monotonous, although that is perhaps the intention. When Joseph takes Suzanne and Mark on a trip to his friend’s vineyard, there is a welcome change of scene, but the new setting merely invites new clichés. Mark enthusiastically discusses the business side of things with the owner, while Suzanne links arms with Joseph and indulges in an impromptu disclosure about her not-especially-troubled childhood.

The film is supposed to be a reflection about old age and the impossibility of regaining youth, but these aspects are ignored until the end and only ever dealt with superficially. It is extraordinarily safe and devoid of any conflict; even the dramatic climax peters out into nothing, although unfortunately not before introducing yet another preposterous plot point. It is a bewildering debut from Gilbert, who fails to demonstrate a shred of innovation or a basic understanding of how people interact with one another. Bad films are forgivable, but those which attempt nothing, and cannot even adequately portray that, are not.

Rob Dickie

Much Ado About Nothing

Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon, William Shakespeare (play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz

★★★★★

Filmmakers have always had a tendency to take Shakespeare very seriously indeed, diving deep into the texts to develop their own intellectual interpretations or contriving new settings and scenarios to make the plays appear more relevant to modern audiences. This can result in rich, thoughtful pieces of cinema – see Branagh at his best – or wild strokes of genius, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, but, when done badly, Shakespeare translates awkwardly to screen; there is often some disparity between the language and the action, a fatal flaw that forces you to suspend your disbelief.

Fran Kranz in Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a triumph because it avoids all the usual trappings, taking the text at face value and letting it largely speak for itself. Filmed over 12 days at the director’s Santa Monica home, on a scheduled break from the production of Avengers Assemble, it is a refreshingly straightforward adaptation, modernised due to practical necessity rather than any conceit, dramatic and comedic without ever feeling forced.

Whedon makes excellent use of his surroundings, exploiting the theatricality of the open plan interiors and utilising every layer of the impressive grounds. The film is shot in monochrome, at least partly to ensure greater consistency with limited resources, but this adds an element of noir-ish glamour to the overall look and conceals anything in the environment that might otherwise have been visually distracting. The modernisation is handled deftly, using things like smartphones and electric torches when necessary, without ever making them seem incongruous to the script.

The film plays out like an extended party; the characters are continually drinking wine and engaging in one festivity or another, with Whedon’s own light jazz score providing the soundtrack. It begins as a homecoming, with Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) returning from war, accompanied by the villainous Don John (Sean Maher) and his two associates. Claudio is instantly infatuated with the beautiful, virtuous Hero (Jillian Morgese), while Benedick renews his prickly relationship with her sister, Beatrice (Amy Acker), which Whedon embellishes by revealing in flashback that they once had a passionate one night stand. Claudio quickly wins Hero’s hand in marriage and, along with his friend, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), and her father, Leonato (Clark Gregg), they vow to play Cupid with Beatrice and Benedick, while their enemies conspire to break up the happy couple.

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof

Much Ado About Nothing never shies away from turning dark and moody, particularly when the drama reaches its peak, but it will be remembered primarily as one of the funniest Shakespeare adaptations ever committed to film. The exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice are brilliantly timed and accentuate the biting wit of the original dialogue, while the slapstick scenes in which they are allowed to hear of their supposed love for one another are inventive and genuinely hilarious. Nathan Fillion gives an inspired performance as the easily-offended police officer, Dogsberry, playing the clown with relentless sincerity, and the entire cast go about their work in such good humour that it is difficult not to be drawn along with them.

It is a evidently personal project for Whedon and he is working with actors who are behind him every step of the way. The film has a spontaneous, liberated quality, stemming from the natural intimacy between the cast, which helps the audience connect with the language and engage emotionally with the characters. Like no other adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy, it fully understands the playfulness of the dialogue, the sheer foolish joy of the language, without coming close to overstating it. Never seriously putting a foot wrong, Much Ado About Nothing really is a delight.

Rob Dickie

Killer Joe

Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Tracy Letts (play and screenplay)
Year: 2011
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon

★★★★☆

A bold choice to open the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Killer Joe is a violent, twisted black comedy with an ending that will leave you squirming on the edge of your seat. Directed by William Friedkin and adapted by Tracy Letts from his own hit Broadway play, it begins as a trashy trailer park thriller but develops into something truly shocking.

Matthew McConaughey is a revelation, giving the performance of his career as the title character, a perverse detective and assassin on the side. He dominates every scene and continually astonishes, not least because he retains every ounce of his charisma until the very end, long after it should have drained away entirely.

Killer Joe Matthew McConaughey Juno Temple

The film opens with Chris (Emile Hirsch), a good for nothing slacker, banging on the door of his father’s trailer until his half-naked stepmother, Sharla (Gina Gershon), lets him in. He has just been thrown out of his mother’s house and is in desperate need of money after getting into debt with some dangerous men. Having heard that Killer Joe Cooper can be hired for a fee, he hatches a plan along with his simple-minded father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to have his mother murdered so they can cash in her $50,000 life insurance policy. However, he has no chance of stumping up the hefty advance that Joe demands, so is forced to offer his younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), as sexual collateral.

The scenes featuring Joe and Dottie are electric, by far the best in the film. Their first meeting is intriguing, but the scene in which they have time to spend alone together is intense and completely disarming. Dottie is a fascinating character because we are never allowed to know where she stands, or what her ultimate role will be. To the other characters, she is a troubled adolescent or quasi-paedophilic fantasy, but she remains in control of herself and is able to effortlessly skip around them all.

The bulk of the film is dedicated to the planning and aftermath of the murder and, unfortunately, it gets bogged down in unnecessary detail. Too much of the action is diverted to the somewhat juvenile subplot involving Chris and the gangsters, and any scenes which do not feature McConaughey lack a spark. For the most part, he is a level above the film. The other male performances are laboured when he is not on screen, and even Gershon and Temple, who are both excellent, work best when following his lead.

But what Killer Joe was really made for is the finale, a long self-contained scene that comes out of nowhere to reanimate the flailing narrative. It is brutal, excessive, violent, melodramatic, and makes nauseatingly effective use of a fried chicken drumstick in a soon-to-be-notorious scene. It ends on such a nasty, trashy high that it will be a while before you remember there were any serious flaws in it at all. If you ignore the bloated middle, Killer Joe is a provocative, excruciating and memorable piece of cinema, with a truly great villain. It’s just a shame there is so much you would like to forget.

Rob Dickie

Flicker (Flimmer)

Director: Patrik Eklund
Writer: Patrik Eklund
Year: 2012
Cast: Jacob Nordenson, Anki Larsson, Kjell Bergqvist

★★★★☆

A touching Swedish comedy centred on a small town telecommunications company, Flicker is the debut feature from Oscar-nominated short film director, Patrik Eklund. When a power cut causes a blackout across the town of Backberga, it sparks into motion a chain of events which comes to affect each of Unicom’s offbeat employees.

With a strong cast and superbly drawn characters, Flicker cannot fail to impress as it flits between them. Jacob Nordenson is wonderful as the central character, Kenneth, a hapless ‘Ted Danson lookalike’ who endearingly struggles with computers, romance and financial reports. He gives a nuanced performance, creating a character that is ridiculous yet unmistakably human. Kenneth develops a moving relationship with the office cleaner, Birgitta (Anki Larsson), which epitomises the warmth of the comedy and results in many of film’s finest scenes. Birgitta also suffers from arachnophobia, an unfortunate condition in her line of work. The idea is perfectly realised and inventively utilised, along with virtually everything else in Flicker.

Flicker

There is a motif of electricity running throughout the film, and Eklund plays on its conducive effect as well as its tendency to disconnect. Our dependence on technology is satirised in some quite unexpected ways, particularly when the film moves effortlessly into the anarchistic world of electro-hypersensitivity. The accident at the beginning of the film involving the two electrical engineers, Roland and Jörgen (Jimmy Lindström and Olle Sarri), proves to be the catalyst for two intriguing subplots, one tragic and one hilarious. The trappings of the modern world, particularly in the corporate environment, also come into focus, as the older generation struggle to adapt their image to fit the new requirements.

Each of the segments is excellent in its own right, but Flicker’s main flaw is that there is just too much going on. Every character, every storyline, is so rich that it demands a little more time than it is given, and, occasionally, scenes are unnecessarily spliced together or simply feel rushed. It is testament to the film’s depth that this is an issue, but it means we are not as connected to the characters as they deserve. The attention that has evidently been put into creating them is not quite reflected in their screen time, perhaps the only hint of Eklund’s inexperience in making feature films. Flicker never feels disjointed – everything revolves seamlessly around the Unicom hub – but it would have benefitted from being slightly longer.

Despite this minor issue, Flicker  is a beautifully written, affecting comedy, littered with fine performances and unexpected twists. Like the bizarre wax candles that Kenneth lovingly crafts, it is undoubtedly silly but warm and natural with a lot of heart.

Rob Dickie

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Director: Lasse Hallström
Writer: Simon Beaufoy, Paul Torday (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas

★★☆☆☆

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is one of those films that could easily be a metaphor for its own production. You can imagine the guy pitching it: “I want to make a film about a Sheikh who tries to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen?” “A film about salmon fishing in the Yemen?! That’s absurd! How? Why?” “Purely because it’s absurd. That’s the beauty of it. It will work, have faith. Just to make sure, we’ll throw in a complicated romantic quadrangle, a just-about-still-topical political angle and enough charm to prevent people just sitting there shaking their heads in disbelief. Trust me.”

It begins with the beautifully named Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) approaching Dr Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor), a government fisheries expert, with a proposal for constructing a river in the Yemeni desert and transporting 10,000 wild salmon from British rivers so her client, the Sheikh (Amr Waked), can fish. Fred naturally ridicules the idea, but, under pressure from the Prime Minister and his dogged press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas), both desperate for a feel-good story from the Middle East, he agrees to meet Harriet and discuss the project. Before he knows it, everything is in motion and he begins to chase after the impossible.

It sounds like it should have been a political satire, like the novel by Paul Torday it was based on. It does have satirical undertones, but they are far too tame to be taken seriously. The war in Afghanistan is treated soberly, but nothing else comes close to being a target – Anglo-Middle Eastern relations, the Prime Minister’s shameless PR efforts and even terrorist attacks are only ever lighthearted asides or superficial plot developments. Kristin Scott Thomas gives a vibrant and engaging performance, but her character is just a glamorised Malcolm Tucker, without the depth of character or genuine sense of being under pressure.

Lasse Hallström clearly opts against making a satire, instead using the story as a vehicle for the kind of feel-good film he is known for (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat). Quite what there is to feel good about in an oil-rich Sheikh’s decadent vanity project is not immediately clear, though Hallström extracts as much as is humanly possible from the grand folly of it all. The main point of interest is the relationship between Fred and Harriet, which has the effect of transforming the salmon project into an overly figurative backdrop. McGregor and Blunt have enough chemistry to make it work, and you would probably end up rooting for them if there was even the slightest hint they might not end up together.

The one area the film does succeed in is the comedy, which draws plenty of laughs all the way through. It is very British in character, exploiting Fred’s reserve, eccentricity and awkward attempts at telling jokes. There are some excellent lines and very funny moments, which makes it a shame that the rest of the film does not support it.

Aside from humour, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen offers little, and the elaborate project it is built around seems wasted. It takes you from London to Scotland to the Yemen but, while this offers aesthetic variety, you get the feeling that the essential story could just as easily have taken place in a New York office. The plot is clumsy, with too many arbitrary developments and emotional twists, particularly towards the end. It tries to be stupidly charming but ends up more charmingly stupid, and only that because the leads are able to inject some comic life into a film which was always likely to fail.

Rob Dickie

The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Writer: Michel Hazanavicius
Year: 2011
Cast:  Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman

★★★★☆

To make a silent film that straightforwardly copies the style of the 1920s would be a gimmick. To put it simply, filmmaking has moved on. That is not to say that it has got better or worse – many silent films from that era are wonderful, but they are products of their time. Merely recreating an old-fashioned silent film in the modern age is impossible. It would seem hollow.

With The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius does not attempt to make a 1920s film, however much he borrows from them. Yes, it is shot in black and white in an old-fashioned ratio, the soundtrack is heavily reminiscent of the era, and there is no dialogue until the very end, but The Artist’s strength lies in the way it uses these aspects of the silent film, and transforms them into something else – something modern and self-reflexive.

The sound of silence is all George Valentin can tolerate.

The film would not work otherwise. Its occasional breaks into irony are necessary, whether achieved by the use of sound or colour, or any other quirks of the style. The clearest example is during the star George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) nightmare, which sees him thrust into a threatening world of everyday sound. The strength of the silent world that Hazanavicius has created means that the rift caused by sound is unnerving, but the irony is that the film, like any other, is not set in a silent world at all. The scene works because we can empathise, yet to empathise in that scenario should be absurd.

Our sophisticated position as viewers from a distant future makes the on-screen action appear quaint, but this only deepens our connection with the characters. The Artist maintains a relationship between the audience and the screen that is rarely seen. In a crowded cinema, there were few who didn’t smile for the majority of the film, few who didn’t laugh out loud, and few who didn’t feel compelled to applaud at the end. If nothing else, The Artist is a charmer.

In part this is down to the story, which depicts a silent film star, Valentin, who falls in love with an upcoming actress, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), before his career is ruined by the arrival of the talkies. His character is not entirely sympathetic, showing from the beginning a clear ambivalence to his wife and eventually becoming extremely jealous in the wake of Peppy’s success, but the desire for him and the romance to succeed never deteriorates. Like any true silent film star, Dujardin is larger than life and infinitely expressive, which is where his charm lies. He is also permanently accompanied by his dog, Uggie, who more than once steals the show.

As it reaches its finale, the film becomes fairly dark. The black and white is used perfectly to deepen the mood and the music becomes increasingly melodramatic. Valentin’s downfall is touching and his perilous position is starkly contrasted to the dancing and frivolity that come before it. That is the beauty of making a film in this way – the contrasts – it forces distinction and doesn’t allow for subtlety, and if the film can bring the audience with it, as The Artist does, it makes for an enchanting experience.

There is nothing difficult or subjective about the film. It is designed to appeal to a wide audience, somewhat ironically given that many will dismiss it simply for the fact of its silence. It is very funny, and appeals to a sense of humour which everyone possesses to an extent, something most comedies are unable to do. However, it is not perfect. It is only gimmicky once, but unfortunately the gimmick comes at a crucial moment. It is a moment that has elsewhere been praised and will divide audiences, but one that is disingenuous and uses the medium in a way that manipulates the audience into thinking something has happened when it has not. Hazanavicius strikes a false note at the dramatic climax, and in a word the connection is broken. Bang! But only for a moment.

Rob Dickie

Hugo

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: John Logan, Brian Selznick (book)
Year: 2011
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Sacha Baron Cohen

★★★★★

It might seem incongruous for an expensive 3D blockbuster to make clockwork technology and the primitive origins of filmmaking its principle subjects, or indeed for that most adult of directors, Martin Scorsese, to venture into children’s cinema for the first time in his long career. However, Hugo demonstrates that these incongruities are only apparent, as they form the basis of a wonderful character-driven story and the best live action family film in years.

It opens with the title character (Asa Butterfield) attempting to steal a clockwork mouse from Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the ageing owner of a toy booth in a Parisian railway station, which is continually under the watchful eye of an uncompromising Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Georges catches Hugo in the act and confiscates his most valued possession, an old notebook containing instructions for the repair of a broken automaton, which represents the only tangible connection he has to his dead father (Jude Law). Hugo leads a lonely existence, living in apartments built into the station walls and tasked with ensuring that the clocks run on time. The only thing keeping him going is his desire to repair the automaton and discover its secret message.

3D Clockwork: Scorcese uses new technology to bring old inventions to life.

He is forced to work in the toy booth to earn back his notebook, and while doing so he meets Georges’s daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Together they embark on an adventure that uncovers the hidden past of the Méliès family, and takes them on a journey through cinematic history. Hugo is a celebration of cinema and Scorsese affirms his love for the medium in the same way that Giuseppe Tornatore did with Cinema Paradiso. Both explicitly through the film’s message and implicitly through its presentation, Scorsese emphasises the magic of cinema, regardless of how primitive or advanced the techniques that are employed. In an era when the use of 3D technology is frequently seen as a modern degradation, Scorsese makes the point that filmmaking hasn’t changed a bit.

The 3D effects are wonderful, ranging from the intricacies of facial expressions, clockwork mechanisms and the multiple 2D layers of the oldest film sets, to the spectacular vistas of 1930s Paris, which give the city height and scale like never before. It looks stunning, and, while the effects are deliberately conspicuous, they are never a distraction. Effects are there to tell a story, as we are told, and Scorsese ensures that they all have a purpose and enhance the story he has to tell.

However, Hugo is not only a film about film. It has a great story and a rich tapestry of characters, reminiscent of a Victorian novel. However minor they appear in the grand scheme of things, each character is rendered with a depth and humanity that takes them beyond their role in the plot. The community that inhabits the station is very much the heart of the film. Its interactions are genuine and understated but frequently poignant. Hugo exists in its hidden fringe but, towards the end, he goes from being a background observer to the focus of attention in a touching scene in which the characters he knows so well really see him for the first time. The acting is strong as might be expected from such a stellar cast; Ben Kingsley puts in the outstanding performance, but Sacha Baron Cohen’s is the most representative. His Station Inspector is both a villain and a clown, but always simultaneously a man. Having made his name playing a caricature, Cohen takes the opportunity to demonstrate the range of his talent.

Hugo is a film of intrigue and adventure, and one that is intensely aware of the debt it owes to cinema’s largely forgotten pioneers. In light of this, Scorsese refuses to allow it be anything less than exceptional. Like the enduring films from the past, Hugo deserves to be watched by generations who will smile knowingly at the archaism of the effects but will nevertheless fall in love with the cast of characters and the human story it presents.

Rob Dickie