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

Fred Won’t Move Out

Director: Richard Ledes
Writer: Richard Ledes
Year: 2012
Cast: Elliott Gould, Fred Melamed, Stephanie Roth Haberle

★★☆☆☆

Fred, the latest film by writer-director Richard Ledes, offers an unassuming snapshot of a multigenerational family coping with the effects of Alzheimer’s. It is a small film in every sense, never stretched remotely beyond its subject matter by a filmmaker who seems more comfortable producing an objective, sensitive drama than anything which would require greater scope.

Elliott Gould, who plays the eponymous character, is the film’s biggest draw, but, while Fred craves to be the centre of attention, he does not have as dominant a role as you might expect. He lives with his wife, Susan (Judith Roberts), in their modest home in upstate New York, a long way from the big city and, significantly, from their family. Both are ill, but Susan’s condition is far worse; she suffers physically as well as mentally and requires around-the-clock assistance from a live-in nurse (Mfoniso Udofia). This creates tension and an element of resentment in Fred – he seems to dislike the attention his wife receives and does not believe such a high level of care is necessary.

Fred Elliott Gould

Gould is a fine comic actor, but it is difficult to gauge his tone here. With some interesting mannerisms and ready quips, Fred clearly wants to be the larger-than-life character Gould is known for, but he is no longer able to perform that role. He struggles to adapt to his wife’s deterioration and is increasingly unable to provide everything she needs. He brushes off increasingly frequent slippages of memory, maintaining an outwardly stubborn demeanor, but it is clear he is suffering inside.

The drama centres around a visit from Fred and Susan’s son and daughter, Bob (Fred Melamed) and Carol (Stephanie Roth Haberle),who are grappling with the decision as to whether or not to move them into a nursing home. The additional care is vital but the difficulty lies in getting Fred to accept that he and his wife need to move on from the house they have always lived in. As well as being a peaceful environment, it is a treasure trove of memory, full of trinkets and relics, the embodiment of a life that is gradually slipping out of their minds.

Events do occur in Fred, but all are low key. In one of the main sequences, Bob has a  minor run-in with a music therapist, showing his failure to understand the purpose behind remedies which do not cure the disease – the entire film is about the impossibility of understanding the disease itself. As the family sing together, Ledes questions who exactly the song is benefiting, Fred, Susan, their granddaughter Lila, the music therapist himself? Bob sees only the sadness and discomfort that results from the joy the music induces, and he is not entirely wrong to do so.

Fred only loosely engages with these issues, presenting the surface but little depth. It has a dreamy, inconclusive quality but Ledes is not ambitious enough to make anything remarkable out of an interesting scenario. He is dealing with an illness he knows intimately but it does not come across on the screen. He gives us the tension and frustration, but fails to engage with the pain and love at the heart of it all.

Rob Dickie

What is this film called Love?

Director: Mark Cousins
Writer: Mark Cousins
Year: 2012
Cast: Mark Cousins

★★★☆☆

What is this film called Love?

A question in the proper sense, open-ended, unanswerable, something to think about long after the credits have rolled. It is a very personal film, a sort of meditative documentary, shot by Mark Cousins on a £100 flip camera during a lonely three day trip to Mexico City. To use the director’s own terminology, it is an ad-lib, a stream-of-consciousness take on whatever he captures with his camera, a film without boundaries that develops, through personal memories and free association, into a rough philosophy of life.

Loosely, it begins as a film about Sergei Eisenstein, a figure who evidently means a lot to Cousins. As he walks around the streets of Mexico City, which Eisenstein visited in the 1930s, he holds a photograph out in front of him and talks to an imaginary version of the Soviet director, which seems to have influenced his life and career as much as the real thing. While always slightly bizarre, this technique has the effect of turning a series of spontaneous observations into something resembling a purposeful piece of cinema.

What is this Film Called Love? Mark Cousins

Comparing his own filmmaking style to that of Eisenstein, Cousins uses illustrative shots to highlight different ways of seeing the world, demonstrating the effect that filmmaking has on your perception. Whether or not he consciously decided to come to that point is irrelevant – as a wandering director with camera in hand, it was inevitable. The most interesting scenes are those that explicitly deal with film, which is, after all, Cousins’s passion and area of expertise. What is this film called Love? is at its best when he opts to analyse the characters on a street corner as if they were in a Jacques Tati film, or captures a shot of a motorway bridge because its diagonal lines remind him of the geometry in Soviet cinema.

The Mexico City scenes are interspersed with holiday footage and dream sequences, which are used to elucidate some of Cousins’s observations and provide catharsis to the busy, unaesthetic metropolis. The use of montage is also excellent, and the choice of music, which includes some new PJ Harvey tracks and Tony Christie’s Avenues and Alleyways, is inspired.

Eventually, the film settles into a quasi-philosophical tone, structurally and thematically reminiscent of the bestselling novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Central to the novel is the Vedantic expression tat tvam asi, which means you are that, and Cousins’s real achievement is translating this principle into the medium of film. Using the camera, he develops a deep connection to the world around him, finding beauty and significance in everything. He makes it personal, into a part of himself. This is what he means by love.

It sounds extremely promising, but much of what you take from the film has little to do with its execution. The narration tends to be heavy handed, and the female narrator takes something away from the intimate tone, despite her misplaced protestations to the contrary in the concluding scenes. The film often comes across as self-indulgent, a little too private for public viewing. Cousins ultimately fails to make the experience as much ours as his. At one point he says that it is not a serious film, but we are forced to take it seriously in order to engage with it.

Like Pirsig’s novel, I have found it difficult to get out of my head without being particularly impressed by it at the time. The ideas are there, as a work in progress, but the limitations of the project are all too obvious. The rough approach may be liberating for the filmmaker but sacrifices must be made in the final product. Cousins does not succeed – he does not genuinely try to succeed – in making a film, but has nevertheless captured something tangible and true.

Rob Dickie

The Lifeguard (El Salvavidas)

Director: Maite Alberdi
Writer: Maite Alberdi, Sebastián Brahm, Alejandro Fernández
Year: 2011
Cast: Mauricio Rodríguez, Jean Pierre Palacios, Alan Munoz

★★☆☆☆

Maite Alberdi’s debut feature, The Lifeguard, has the look and feel of a documentary but is actually a short drama. Set entirely on a stretch of Chilean beach and focusing principally on a single character, the prickly lifeguard, Mauricio (Mauricio Rodríguez), it relies on its ability to immerse the audience in the setting. Pablo Valdés’s excellent cinematography ensures there are plenty of evocative shots, particularly at the beginning. The first image is beautiful, highlighting the bright morning mist that surrounds the lifeguard towers. The sound of the sea is continually present, as are conversations between the diverse crowd of beachgoers. The film has a naturalistic feel – we are taken in close and get to know the characters sitting around the camera, in the same superficial way as we would if we were actually there.

The Lifeguard El Salvavidas

The character of Mauricio is visually interesting — he looks cool with long dreadlocks and dark sunglasses, but his appearance is at odds with his personality. A stickler for the rules, he certainly does not see the beach as somewhere to chill out. The film is structured around his daily routine, which primarily involves arguing with beachgoers, building a relationship with a young boy and complaining about his rival lifeguard, Jean Pierre (Jean Pierre Palacios). Jean Pierre is his polar opposite, regularly late for work, openly relaxed and restrained when it comes to blowing his whistle.

Despite its aesthetic qualities, The Lifeguard quickly becomes rather dull. The camera sets the viewer up as an observer, but, generally, there is little to observe. For the majority of the film, the action is entirely composed of dialogue between lifeguards and members of the public. There are some interesting moments, particularly when Mauricio interacts with the boy, but more often than not, there are no points of reference which allow us connect with what is being said. Some of the conversations feel forced, though this may be due to the translated subtitles (I do not speak any Spanish). Regardless, it causes the facade of realism to collapse and makes it difficult to care about the minor characters.

Eventually, Alberdi deems it necessary to inject some drama into the story, but even this is only glimpsed second hand. The incident itself is predictable, although it must be said the consequences are not. Mauricio changes dramatically as a result, which could have been an interesting development, but his transformation is never really explored. Simply changing the tone fails to revive the film and, although the visual effect is again interesting, this is nowhere near enough.

The Lifeguard is essentially a film which relies on immersion, but it leaves the audience feeling bored. The beach is seen and heard but rarely felt, which is ultimately where the film falls short. It takes so long for something to happen and, when it comes, it is disappointing. To make up for the repetitive, disjointed build-up, it needed to be spectacular.

Rob Dickie

Exit Elena

Director: Nathan Silver
Writer: Nathan Silver, Kia Davis
Year: 2012
Cast: Kia Davis, Cindy Silver, Nathan Silver

★★★★☆

Simplicity is the key strength of Exit Elena, a short feature directed by Nathan Silver, who also plays a version of himself with a different surname. Silver co-wrote the film with the lead actress, Kia Davis, who plays the eponymous character, and it also stars his mother, Cindy Silver, again as herself. The real life relationships among the small cast help to create the sense of documentary reality that permeates the film, as the characters are gradually drawn into a web of intimacy that we never doubt for a second.

Elena is initially hired as a nurse to care for Jim’s (Jim Chiros) elderly mother, Florence (Barbara White), but it quickly becomes clear that the family require more than a professional relationship. Elena remains an ambiguous figure and almost nothing is revealed of her origins or motivations, which proves frustrating for the other characters but interesting for the audience. She has an air of being lost, displaced and alone, but we are given no indication as to why that might be.

Exit Elena

The narrative progresses extremely well, as moments of drama and changes in tone are introduced before the audience have any opportunity to lose interest. Silver deftly brings out different sides to the characters just as the film needs to step up the intimacy, but the guarded dialogue ensures we never come close to feeling that we know all there is to know. The characters are familiar yet distant, like genuine acquaintances we have never had the opportunity to learn more about.

The drama is kept minimal and deals solely with everyday social situations, but becomes quietly powerful towards the end. The final scene is the only one which is ostensibly staged, but we accept it as real because that tone has been sustained for so long. It is a poignant, strangely liberating moment, even though Elena’s future remains very much up in the air.

The performances are vital to the film’s authenticity, and ensure it never deviates from absolute realism. The discomfort and claustrophobia of being confined in a small house with strange, or estranged, people is prominent in the early scenes, and the peculiar dependence that develops between the characters is believably executed, despite the blurring of normal social boundaries. It is Cindy Silver who gives the stand out performance, as her character develops from a fussy, overbearing housewife into a complex, likeable woman.

Silver resists the temptation to stretch the film out longer than is needed, keeping the runtime down to a modest 70 minutes. There is little excess, with the exception of some unnecessary date and title frames, meaning it remains focused on what it is trying to portray. The result is a meticulously observed piece of realism and as genuine a film as you are likely to see. Despite its tiny budget and refusal to resort to artifice, Exit Elena is a compelling portrait that never misses a beat.

Rob Dickie

Dragon (Wu xia)

Director: Peter Chan
Writer: Oi Wah Lam
Year: 2011
Cast: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang

★★★★☆

The Edinburgh International Film Festival’s creative director, Chris Fujiwara, has encouraged audiences to step out of their comfort zone and experience something different, which is precisely what I did with Dragon. Martial arts films are not normally high on my to-watch list, and I would be hard pressed to remember the last one I actually saw. However, I am certainly glad I gave this one a shot. Dragon is the hugely successful Chinese director Peter Chan’s first venture into the wu xia genre, but it is a real treat. With a narrative as intense as the set pieces, it is an intriguing thriller about two men seeking redemption from their past.

They are brought together when the seemingly ordinary paper worker, Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen), fights and kills two ruthless armed robbers, who make an assault on the shop he happens to be in. When it emerges that one of the bandits was a trained killer and one of the most dangerous men in China, an intuitive detective, Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), becomes suspicious of the idyllic village’s new hero.

Dragon Wu Xia Donnie Yen

The first fight scene is entertaining in itself, but is taken to an extra level when it is meticulously reconstructed in Xu’s mind. The action is replayed, with added focus at the crucial moments, and embellished with Xu’s analysis. Deducing that Liu must have used qi energy and advanced fighting techniques, Xu exposes the ruse that he simply got lucky. Chan uses a range of visual effects, particularly to add precise detail to the development of internal wounds, a technique which remains effective throughout the film.

Once Xu has confirmed there is more to Liu than meets the eye, the psychological conflict between the two men can begin. Xu’s character offers a unique perspective on the action, and Kaneshiro gives a measured performance, showing a studious exterior which harbors an intense passion. Tortured by the memory of setting a young criminal free early in his career, only for him to return home and poison his parents, Xu makes law the highest principle in life, placing it above all humanity. He is determined to bring Liu to justice, long before he discovers the extent of his violent past.

Liu is also a complex character, determined to live an ordinary life but evidently hiding something terrible. Dragon’s opening scene depicts him dining with his family in a tranquil home, and it is so genuine a moment that his sincere desire for reform cannot initially be doubted. However, as word of his whereabouts spreads, Liu’s resolve is sternly tested and he is forced to directly confront the demons of his past.

Chan is able to seamlessly blend genres, combining elements from drama, action and detective films, and this also serve to make a formal point within Dragon itself. We are presented with a world in transition — the old methods of existence are beginning to be superseded as new technologies ensure material prosperity in rural areas. There is a conflict between the scientific and the natural, the part and the whole, which is exemplified in the two central characters. Tradition, spirituality and man’s connection with nature are all challenged as the film develops, adding thematic depth to an exceptionally entertaining film.

Dragon’s consistently arresting narrative is backed up by strong performances, spectacular visuals, intense action sequences and beautiful cinematography, making it an exhilarating ride.

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