Saturday, June 26, 2010

So arrives the end of the 2010 Edinburgh International Film Festival. As my first-ever experience of attending a film festival, I have to say I quite enjoyed it although setting my expectations maybe a bit to high I felt a bit underwhelmed. Unless I just wasn't catching the right films, I never found myself thinking, "Ah yes, here's this year's 'The Hurt Locker.'" To think that Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winner had its world premiere at EIFF last year! Amazing. Nonetheless, I'm happy I got to see some of the great films I did. Below is a breakdown of the 20 films I reviewed and their respective star-ratings, and below the break is a wrap-up of the most note-worthy ones to keep in mind for later in the year when some of these start getting more distribution in the U.S. along with my Top 5 list from the festival.

4 Stars

The Illusionist
Winter's Bone
My Words, My Lies - My Love
Get Low

3 1/2 Stars

Son of Babylon
Pelican Blood
Jackboots on Whitehall
The Extra Man
The People vs. George Lucas

3 Stars

Snowman's Land
HIGH School

2 1/2 Stars

The Rebound
Third Star

2 Stars

Cherry Tree Lane
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

1 1/2 Stars


1 Star


1/2 Star


It's safe to say that "Winter's Bone" should be watched as an award contender because it's already getting some limited release in the U.S. and rave reviews from critics. I could see this one getting remembered even through to Oscar season. It's that good.

"Get Low" will be in limited release on July 30th in the U.S. and will be most notably remembered for Robert Duvall's powerful performance. Oscar nomination? Depends on what else happens later in the year, but it's definitely a possibility.

"The Extra Man" also gets a July 30th limited release, and I could see it eventually making a wide release perhaps capturing the Wes Anderson audience. As for awards, as much as I'd like to see Kevin Kline get recognized, it's unlikely.

I can see "The Illusionist" getting nominated for Best Animated Feature up against the likes of "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Toy Story 3." Not sure how wide the release on that one will get, though. Or maybe it's too connected to a Scotland culture for U.S. audiences to care. Only time will tell.

"My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" is already make it around the arts circuit in the U.S. I can only see this one sneaking into some independent theaters.

As much as "The Rebound" could be something for wide U.S. audiences to mindlessly consume, it looks like Brett Freundlich's movies have bad luck making distribution in the U.S. His 2005's "Trust the Man" didn't go anywhere.

"Jackboots on Whitehall" could maybe hit some independent theaters in the U.S. if it's lucky, but I'm not feeling a wide release for this one. It's just too embedded in British culture and humor.

One of the biggest stories of the festival I think, is the potential for distribution that "HIGH School" holds. I'd really, really like to see it make wide release and be a sleeper comedy sensation. We can only cross our fingers and hope.

EIFF 2010 Top Five:

1. Winter's Bone
2. The Illusionist
3. Get Low
4. The Extra Man
5. Jackboots on Whitehall

Thursday, June 24, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "Third Star" (2010)

With "Third Star" as the closing night gala, directed by Hattie Dalton who won a BAFTA for her 2004 short "The Banker," the festival goes out with more of a whimper than a bang. The film is a buddy comedy but also a wrenching drama as four friends prepare for the passing of one among them who is terminally ill from cancer. When touching on such a subject, it's hard not to lean toward putting on the schmaltz, and Dalton's film skirts past that thin line just before falling over.

James (Benedict Cumberbatch) has been ill for quite some time, ten years or so, and while he still has enough strength, his three friends take him on a trip to his favorite place: Barafundle Bay. Miles (JJ Feild) almost didn't come on the trip to begin with, Bill (Adam Robertson) has issues committing to the women in his life and Davy (Tom Burke) is overprotective of James and has the insatiable desire to feel wanted. They all say their goodbyes and head off their way with a yellow cart for James, plenty of luggage and even someone's tall-standing plant.

Their trek along the country and seasides is gorgeously shot with frequent silhouettes of the four men and the cart against the magnificent scenery as they push their way along. A moment at an outdoor pub sets the tone nicely as the four men get into a brawl, and we realize we're essentially watching a group of 30-year-old men recapturing their youth. An encounter with a strange fisherman looking for brown Darth Vader action figures is a highlight along with a fireworks display with humorously disastrous results.

During the more intimate conversations between the men, the film begins addressing cancer as a realistic subject without playing to be too sentimental about it. It's a refreshing take, one that is exchanged between James and Miles. It's harsh but truthful as Miles tells James cancer is no excuse to be an ego-maniac. In moments like these, the four actors really shine; however, it would have been beneficial for the film to be a bit longer to dig even deeper into these characters to feel more invested in them. We never fully know any one of these individuals enough to compensate for what's to come.

More investment would have made the ending of "Third Star" much easier to take, which takes an abruptly sharp turn into sentimentalism that borderlines unintentional melodrama. The rest of the film's enjoyably bittersweetness did not prepare me to have my heartstrings tugged at so furiously, and it ended up evoking less of an impact than what was obviously intended. Still, the movie is a nice blend of comedy and pathos that falls just a little too heavy-handedly.

EIFF Premiere: "The People vs. George Lucas" (2010)

This is such a fun documentary to watch as it presents the fans' perspective of the "Star Wars" franchise along with the man behind it all, George Lucas, who, throughout the course of the film, becomes an icon and a metaphor for something greater than even himself. George Lucas is a man easy to love as well as a man who's easy to hate, and to these fans, it is strictly a love-hate relationship.

"The People vs. George Lucas" takes on a topic that has an endless amount of material to address, and it does so in a concise and inventive way that is not for one minute boring or tedious. Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, the movie shows how "Star Wars" exploded into the dynasty it is along with the passionate and loyal fandom it sparked. It begins with the importance of what Lucas had created back in 1977 as a defining film in a culture that would soon explode.

There is an arc to the fandom story that goes from admiration to raging hatred back to admiration. The hatred started with the announcement of the special editions, the updated versions of the three original "Star Wars" films that provoked mass outrage among fans due to its changes that Lucas considered improvements while others certainly did not. From here the movie dives into a fascinating contemplation on the responsibility of the artist. At what point does a film become a product of the times that should not be tampered with? Does the public eventually own the rights to a product of its culture? Fans felt Lucas removed that very privilege by refusing to re-release the original versions stating that the special editions were the real "Star Wars" he had envisioned.

And then came the prequels. Fans took these as George Lucas smirking and spitting in their faces, especially with the introduction of Jar Jar Binks. But then again, the fans of the original "Star Wars" films were adults by then, and Lucas argues that these are children's movies. Is it truly generational, or should have the franchise grown up with its original fan base?

As one interview states, it wasn't that the fans were asking for more "Star Wars" that were good but just for more "Star Wars."

The movie is strung together with a series of a variety of talking heads providing an array of perspectives from fans, critics and filmmakers. Interspersed with these are clips from fan films of the original "Star Wars" and humorous fan edits of how fans thought the prequels should have been done. Before seeing this movie, I simply had no idea how much "Star Wars" merchandise and fandom there really is, and the wide range of it is displayed here.

One of the most compelling moments comes from footage of an old interview with director Francis Ford Coppola. He labels the making of "Star Wars" as the loss of an auteur and says George Lucas is unfortunately trapped inside the corporate machine that "Star Wars" has become. Take into consideration films like "THX 1138" and "American Graffiti" Lucas had made before this, and just think about what else he could have done if it weren't for this.

"The People vs. George Lucas" manages to circle back around to admiration even as fans sure may despise him because, yes, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" gets mentioned along with the "South Park" episode that parodied what it meant to fans when Lucas made it. In spite of this, though, they can't put behind them the great entertainment he provided them with the original "Star Wars."

While playful in tone, this documentary is insightful into how media can play into one's own representation and memory of childhood along with what it means to be an artist in terms of what kind of control they have against the public's digestion and consequential adornment of the work. So then, did George Lucas really rape the people's childhood?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "Get Low" (2010)

There is a 1930s American folk tale about a reclusive old man named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) who is feared by most people in town. There are legends surrounding him about the terrible deeds he has done and the men he has killed with his own bare hands. Felix arrives into town to begin planning for his funeral service, an event that all the townspeople are invited to attend. The catch is that it's a funeral party, and Felix will be there in attendance not dead but alive.

Aaron Schneider's "Get Low" is inspired by this tale, and the film does an excellent job of conveying the mood and feel of the old South. Set in rural 1930s Tennessee, the cinematography from David Boyd is frequently beautiful to look at. This is Schneider's feature-length directorial debut as he won an Oscar for his short film, "Two Soldiers," and he proves to have a keen sense of balance and timing. He is confident at telling this seemingly slight story that turns out to be emotionally involving and satisfying. With sly humor and quieter more intimate moments in equal value, Schneider and his writers strike a pleasantly restrained chord in this old legend and set the showcase for some compelling characters.

Upon hearing that Felix had come into town looking for a funeral, Buddy (Lucas Black), a young employee at Quinn's Funeral Home, heads out to Felix's lone cabin in the woods with his boss, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). They quickly strike up a deal even with the odd request of throwing a party as Frank's eyes light up at the sound of a big payout because his funeral home business is failing. "What do you do when people won't die?" he asks. Frank and Buddy soon find out the type of man, and consequently man of legend, they're dealing with. Felix gets brought onto a radio show, and there he offers folks raffle tickets with his valuable property as the prize working as incentive to get people to show up. He knows people have stories to tell about him, and he wants to hear them all.

A soft-spoken widowed woman, Mattie (Sissy Spacek), comes back into town and is curious to hear that Felix is showing himself after so long. "There's nobody like him," she says. The scenes between Mattie and Felix are the movie's most heartfelt and sentimental as they mull over the ideas of loss, death and forgiveness. "The list of people going gets longer and longer," Mattie says. "I'm waiting for my name to be called." Turns out that Felix doesn't so much want to hear other stories at his funeral than he does want to tell his own. He's been carrying a burden of guilt for the past 40 years. Even an old friend of Felix's, Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), is reluctant to speak for him at the funeral.

And I've yet to even mention Robert Duvall's astonishing, finely nuanced and downright Oscar-caliber performance as Felix Bush. He is a superb actor, and his work here is both humorous and sorrowful. Playing a cranky hermit could easily have led to a caricature, but Duvall sidesteps that and molds a fully-fledged man who may have a few screws loose but is also affectionate. Duvall is backed with an equally fine supporting cast. Spacek is sweet and lovely, Lucas Black is effective, Bill Cobbs is wise and solemn, and, most of all, Bill Murray is hilarious with all of his gestures, glances and snappy jokes.

Once the build-up of anticipation for Felix's funeral party is released, "Get Low" hits its stride. Duvall's delivery of Felix's confession will have you wiping your eyes dry, the signal of a masterful performance and ranking among the most powerful and memorable moments I've seen on-screen so far this year.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" (2009)

It's not that Werner Herzog's "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" is necessarily bad, it's just a film that is forever impenetrable. Just look at the title, and you know there's no getting past that. The movie is produced by David Lynch's production company Absurda, and that's understandable as this latest work from Herzog resembles a lot of what interests Lynch: elements of the absurd, the unconventional, the horrific, and most notably, the exasperatingly dumbfounding.

The plot revolves around a police procedural, but it is fueled by clues that lead to nowhere and a suspect who has already been found. It's a story based on facts from a true event in 1979, but Herzog is less interested for his story to follow the facts and much more interested in aiming the story toward a Lynchian-friendly audience.

Willem Dafoe plays a detective who leads the group of police officers arriving on the scene of the crime. He tackles the assignment with straight-faced seriousness no matter how crazy the circumstances. The crime alone is crazy as it involves a man named Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon of "Revolutionary Road") who killed his mother (Grace Zabriskie) with a rusty antique sword that was used as a prop in a theater production where Brad was supposed to play the lead part, a production that, yes, is about a son who kills his mother. Brad takes refuge in his house with two hostages while the cops surround his place outside. As Brad communicates with the police, he literally becomes part of the house rattling the front blinds as he shouts and opening the garage door like a burping mouth to toss objects out like a radio and a can of oatmeal that rolls down the driveway in a brilliantly shot sequence.

When Brad's future wife, Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny), shows up along with the theater director, Lee Meyers (Udo Kier), a series of flashbacks is prompted, and they end up taking up the majority of the running time filling in the gaps of when Brad might have decided to murder his own mother. There's something about him having a revelation during a trip in Peru. Another memory is of a trip to an ostrich farm run by Uncle Ted (Brad Dourif), a scene that has no connection to anything relating back to the San Diego crime scene but is nonetheless strangely fascinating.

The film is filled with scenes and shots that evoke wonder and awe, but their connection to the narrative is nearly impossible to find. A moment with Brad and an escalator is magical, and any scene with the wonderful Grace Zabriskie (who appeared in Lynch's "Inland Empire") as Mrs. McCullum is astonishing. As Brad's mother, Zabriskie plays a woman who is so attached and loving to her son that you wouldn't think of her as evoking murder but maybe just annoyance. There is a moment where she hands Brad and Ingrid some refreshments and remains in the doorway waiting for their reaction. She stands for an uncomfortably long time shifting between two or three supernaturally eerie facial expressions and glances. A similar moment occurs during a long shot at the dinner table where Mrs. McCullum, Brad and Ingrid all stop moving and stare into the camera. What appears to be freeze frame is not as you can tell it's still real-time because the actors are shifting just ever so slightly, and this lasts for nearly a minute. What does it mean? Couldn't tell you, but I loved it anyway.

I can't say, though, that I loved "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" as a whole. I can't say I liked it, either. I liked Michael Shannon, though, who sure knows how to play insane. Apart from that, I can't say much about the film at all because I don't think any individual viewer has the rights to even begin contemplating what any of it means, and in the end, maybe that was Herzog and Lynch's intention. These two are the most interestingly unique and uncompromising filmmakers working today. While it could have been a match made in heaven, this jumbled experiment comes out being far too trapped inside the creators' heads. Maybe next time, guys.

EIFF Premiere: "The Extra Man" (2010)

Kevin Kline's role as the exuberantly eccentric failed playwright, Henry Harrison, is perhaps his funniest and best performance in years. I would consider it something worthy of an award nomination, but we'll see if that unfolds over time after further release of the film in which he stars, "The Extra Man," based upon the 1999 novel by Jonathan Ames and written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini ("American Splendor," "The Nanny Diaries").

Living in a cluttered, ramshackle apartment in New York City, Henry is a man who considers himself an aristocrat. Meanwhile, he sneaks into operas and has a special technique of how to pee in public without anyone noticing. With wispy grey hair that is most often slicked back when he's wearing his suit and jacket, he calls himself a gentleman of the highest class, an extra man. He is an escort for wealthy older women while never engaging in them sexually. Yet that's because he believes all the best women come from Russia. He holds strange ideals, controversial ones, and places them out on the table like they're meant to be there all along. And when not dressed for an outing, Henry's grey locks fly free, and he wears his high-waisted blue sweatpants and does dance exercises that look like a madman having convulsions. He's clean but slimy, scholarly but out-of-touch and, plainly put, an assembly of bizarre contradictions. He also has a strange fascination with Christmas balls.

The story isn't so much about Henry, however, than it is about a painfully shy and self-conscious man named Louis Ives (Paul Dano). After an incident at Princeton where he taught, Louis moves to New York to figure out a new life. He ends up living with Henry in his apartment, and from their very first conversation Louis discovers how strange Henry's lifestyle is and gets oddly transfixed by him. During their time together, Henry plans to make Louis his protegé, his extra man in training.

Louis lands himself a job at an environmental magazine where he meets arguably the only normal person featured in the movie, Mary (Katie Holmes). Louis has a crush on her, and while it's an innocent one, Mary can't look past his awkward and odd demeanor. At a lunch with Mary, Louis explains to her how he imagines himself in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel in the 1920s with someone narrating his life.

The movie is clever in that some instances feel like they could be set in that era and even more clever, then, that we hear a narrator describing Louis' inner thoughts. It's a comedy of manners, one that toys around with generational expectations of cordial behavior and also turns the act of being a manly gentleman and other sexual politics on their heads. Louis has urges about dressing up in women's lingerie, and satisfies these urges by hiring a woman (Patti D'Arbanville) to teach him how to properly cross-dress. He also visits transsexual clubs, but they don't prevail in pleasing him.

Louis soon gets the chance to take Henry's place as the extra man for an old crow of a billionaire, Vivian (Marian Seldes), and after the evening he gets called a perfect gentleman. Yet Louis remains torn. Paul Dano gives a familiar yet strong performance as the young and confused Louis who is mechanical in his words and actions only because he doesn't know how to function outside of 1920s proper lifestyle. He is socially awkward, and the way he observes Henry becomes a twisted tale of Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," and it's fitting that this literature is referenced at the film's start.

The rest of the cast is great, as well, including Celia Weston ("Junebug") and a role from John C. Reilly as Henry's downstairs neighbor like nothing we've ever seen from him before. With a giant bush of hair and beard, he talks with a high-strained falsetto but sings deeply as he gives Henry and Louis something which to dance during a touching beach scene. "The Extra Man" is full of characters who are purposely and exaggeratedly out of the ordinary, but they're used to reach a surprising depth of poignancy. As the narrator states, "So there we are. Where are we?" It's not meant to mean anything, but maybe that's the richly effervescent point all along.

Monday, June 21, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "My Words, My Lies - My Love" (2009)

Director Alain Gsponer's "My Words, My Lies - My Love" is greatly a film about literature and what it means to be an author, a writer, and the ultimate power that just words on a page can hold. It is also a tender love story and, in small parts, even a comedy and a farce of a thriller.

The story itself revolves around farce, a fallacy, one of fame that is never deserved or warranted. The fame comes to a man named David Kern (Daniel Brühl who appeared in "Inglourious Basterds"), a name that unknowingly to him will soon be known to all. His fame arrives when he tries to simply win the desires of a woman, Marie (Hannah Herzsprung of "The Reader"). David is only a waiter at a local café, and while Marie is a connoisseur of literature, it is unfortunate that David is no man of swift wording.

At a flea market where David first bumps into Marie, he buys an old nightstand with a jammed drawer. Back home he finds inside the drawer an old manuscript, "Sophie, Sophie," by Alfred Duster. He takes the work as his own and hands it to Marie to read. He then, of course, dashes to the nearest bookstore and makes sure the name Alfred Duster isn't anyone well-known. Marie falls in love with the novel, and as a result, she falls in love with David. The question throughout the film then becomes whether she'd love him had he not written the novel. The problem for David, then, is that he indeed has not. Unknowing to David, Marie sends the manuscript to a publisher.

Next thing he knows, an outgoing and showy man named Jacky Stocker (Henry Hübchen) appears spouting stories of how he is David's mentor just in time for the book's resounding success. Turns out that this particular man's pseudonym is Alfred Duster.

What follows is a fascinating portrait of the world of publishing and the influence of media as David's fame grows and Stocker begins posing as his agent to reap the benefits from the novel's success. An overwhelming sense of elevating chaos is created, one that tingles with intrigue and anticipation as David digs himself deeper and deeper into his situation. The plot weaves a web of overlapping lies and deceit to the point where the novel, renamed "Lila, Lila," David didn't even write ends up reflecting his own life anyway.

The ending of "My Words, My Lies - My Love" displays the best of the film's superb writing from Alexander Buresch where words become even more important; characters state how they feel through the written word of others and every phrase gets its own extra layer of meaning and subtext. Curious, then, that the English version of the film's original German title, "Lila, Lila," translates over so poorly.

EIFF Premiere: "The Rebound" (2009)

The last time we've seen Catherine Zeta-Jones on the big screen was in the 2007 romantic comedy with Aaron Eckhart, "No Reservations." But, let's be honest, the last time anybody really saw her was back in 2003 or 2004 with "Intolerable Cruelty" or "The Terminal." And so, simply that her first uttered word in this latest film is "fuck" I found to be a welcomed return.

From writer and director Bart Freundlich ("Trust the Man," "Catch That Kid"), Zeta-Jones is put to good use in this old-fashioned, cliché-riddled romantic comedy, "The Rebound," that, in spite of being those things, turns out to be both romantic and funny, a rarity these days.

While putting together a family home movie, Sandy (Catherine Zeta-Jones) comes across a clip of her husband fooling around with another woman. Without any hesitation, she flees the suburbs with her two kids and moves into the heart of New York City. Before she knows it, she's landed herself an apartment to live in and a new job as a fact checker for a sports network. You see, Sandy is an unconventional 40-year-old woman divorcée with kids: she's independent, not afraid to move on and likes sports!

Enter the humbled coffee shop guy who still lives at home with his parents and doesn't really have a direction in life. It's OK, though, he's still attractive. His name is Aram (Justin Bartha last seen in "The Hangover"), and his big run-in with Sandy happens at a self-defense class at the women's center. Hired there briefly to work, Aram suits up as the dummy to take the beatings, and Sandy consequently takes her rage toward her husband out on him. She later apologizes to Aram, and from there casually asks him to watch her kids. Soon the 25-year-old Haram gets hired as her official nanny, and well, that means they get to spend a little more time getting to know each other.

You know the drill from here. Interesting, though, is how the movie plays around with the age difference of the couple. While pointing out the obvious, it's also sometimes surprisingly insightful on how age could not even be much of a barrier. The movie is refreshingly R-rated, too, not shying away from vulgarities and gross-out humor. Sandy's daughter has a fascination with dead things and vomiting while at one point Aram's father talks about his operation that'll give him a new asshole, and Sandy goes out on a first date from hell where the guy carries on a conversation while taking care of business in a porta-john.

While Sandy and Aram's relationship cruises along nicely, the inevitable conflict that comes along feels forced, and the way-too-long montage of revelation and personal self-discovery that follows was the lazy way to finish their story together. The first part of "The Rebound," however, is just fine as an entry into the genre. It looks good and has two good-looking star leads with charming chemistry.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "HIGH School" (2010)

Being the first film I've seen so far at the festival to have applause from the audience at the end, John Stalberg's debut, "HIGH School," has the makings of something that could be quite big in the U.S. as it was already an official selection at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It's not the best film at this festival I've seen, but it's definitely the most satisfying in terms of conventional entertainment.

It certainly has the star power starting with Adrien Brody (who can be currently seen in "Splice") giving an amazingly comedic turn as the whacked-out drug lord named Psycho Ed. You'd barely recognize him at first glance with his body covered in tattoos, a braided beard, a huge fur jacket and wildly blood-shot red eyes. Michael Chiklis who's most known for his dramatic work on the TV series "The Shield" also gives a knock-out funny portrayal of a strict but completely bonkers high school principal whose voice and smile alone make you chuckle. These two actors alone make this a comedy worth seeing. Colin Hanks stars, as well, and is equally rambunctious but to a lesser extent.

"It's high school," says Henry Burke (Matt Bush), the school's front-runner for valedictorian to his love-hate stoner buddy, Travis Breaux (Sean Marquette). "Every day's weird." This one day in particular at Madison High School is not only weird but a day where the entire student body and staff are stoned. In the wake of Henry trying weed for the very first time with Beaux, a school-wide random drug test is announced. Worried about flunking out for good, the two buddies concoct a plan to make it impossible to expel everybody.

In the way the two young leads childishly interact with each other, the most obvious influence comes from the two leads in "Superbad." Matt Bush had a minor role in "Adventureland" alongside Jesse Eisenberg, but here he takes center stage effortlessly. He and Sean Marquette make for a fine pairing and may be the announcement of some new young talent in comedy.

The movie is oftentimes laugh-out-loud funny with its goofball humor. There are numerous great moments like the journey into Psycho Ed's foreboding lair and when Henry attempts to give a failing oral presentation but passes with flying colors. And, best of all, it all is just as memorably quotable as last summer's "The Hangover." It may not be the best representation of a modern day high school you'll ever see on screen, but "HIGH School" is rather spot-on for a quirky stoner flick, a fun screwball teen comedy and the introduction of a potential growing talent in filmmaking.

Friday, June 18, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "Snowman's Land" (2010)

Bookended by a pitch-perfect start and finish, German writer/director Tomasz Thomson's "Snowman's Land" is a lesser "Fargo" as his influence for this black comedy about a bumbling and lazy assassin most notably comes from the work of the Coen brothers.

Set in the stark white of a snowy mountainous scenery, the film tells the story of Walter and Micky, two out-of-work assassins who are given an assignment from a man named Berger who lives in a massive mansion atop the snowy mountains. The first portion of the film acts like an oddball buddy movie as the two men wander aimlessly exploring Berger's home and causing an unexpected accident with Berger's lover.

The results are darkly funny as intended with a sharp sense of style and moments that jump out as such with a screen that flashes red to indicate Walter's adrenaline or another in which red arrows point to where mines have been placed in the snow. These instances are all given voiceover by witty narration. The soundtrack, too, fits well into the absurd screwball world the two assassin losers tumble into.

Consider a moment when Berger attempts to inflict torture on Walter, but just as the blade of an electric knife is about to pierce through Walter's hand the batteries go dead. It's moments like these when the movie shines in its Coen brother-esque humor.

EIFF Premiere: "Jackboots on Whitehall" (2010)

"Jackboots on Whitehall" has been labeled as the British "Team America: World Police," and while it's definitely not as vulgar it is an apt description because it is still a bit raunchy and just as politically tongue-in-cheek and insanely clever and inventive. Even a bit of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" is sprinkled in, as well, with another rewriting of World War II history this time from the brotherly writer/director duo, Edward and Rory McHenry.

The British army has assembled at Dunkirk, but the Nazis have hatched a plan to drill under the English Channel right into the middle of Trafalgar Square in London. The takeover comes complete with Nazi flags draped over Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. A small group bans together to thwart off the invasion, though, taking refuge in Scotland to protect Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) from capture. A simple and kind-hearted rural man named Chris (Ewan McGregor) is the unexpected one to lead the charge.

The film is cunningly satirical of large scale war epics by setting it to such an exaggeratedly small scale of using action figures and Barbie dolls to convey the action. It's also what makes it all the funnier with the characters' blank stares and expressions. The eyes blink and the mouthes move, but everything else for the most part is perfectly still, and it makes for a great comedic effect. Winston Churchill, for example, constantly has a squinted expression and a fat cigar hanging from his lips. The excellent voice cast works, too, with the likes of Ewan McGregor, Rosamund Pike, Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson.

Not afraid of stereotyping every nationality around, "Jackboots" pokes fun at the British, French and especially Americans with the character of Fiske (Dominic West) who relentlessly confuses Nazis for Communists. The Scottish get torn apart, too, as Scotland is referred to as a foreign, awful place with savage people. This leads to a parodied reference of "Braveheart" that explodes into a hilariously violent conclusion.

Thanks to the movie's fun-loving shamelessness, it is shamelessly and undoubtedly entertaining. And just thinking about the painstaking efforts that must have been put into this film to pull off the level of detail in the animation that it does, that's an accomplishment in itself.

EIFF Premiere: "Cherry Tree Lane" (2010)

The first shot of "Cherry Tree Lane" is a pot of boiling water ever so slowly about to get too hot and spill over. It's a shot that echoes the feeling you get watching the rest of the film; that is, tension and anticipation for things to eventually get too heated and boil over completely.

This film written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams is purely an exercise in creating, building and sustaining an almost unbearable sense of suspense and dread. It is reflected in the cinematography that begins with a long shot of a couple at the dining table having an argument set to a simmer. Then suddenly the doorbell rings, the woman goes to the door and suddenly the house is being violently invaded by three teenage boys. Tight close-up shots of faces immediately become the normal style.

Largely resembling Michael Haneke's "Funny Games," it succeeds in developing an atmosphere that'll have you gripping the arm rests until your knuckles go white. Both features can't be considered anything near entertainment but rather an intense experience you only want to go through once.

One cannot help but compare the two films in their similarities, and while Haneke worked to comment on violence in the media, Williams' intention to put viewers through the torment is ultimately unclear. Commentary on youth culture is there, but none of it is worth the 79-minute running time except to leave you panting for breath.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "Nénette" (2009)

I went in expecting similarities to something like last year's Oscar winner "The Cove" in terms of documentary, but from "Nénette," what I received was something much quieter, drier and bare bones to the point.

The film opens with a tight close-up of the 40-year-old orangutan Nénette's eyes. The frame then expands to show all of her as she silently observes the spectators passing by her behind a wall of glass. The majority of the shots in the film are these where we are plainly presented a shot of Nénette with the sound of passersby. It's fascinating to wonder what could be going through her mind at any given point, but, just as one of the interviews states, such is pointless as it would produce no conclusive result.

There is no voiceover narration and only seldom voiceover interviews throughout the piece. One interview humanizes orangutans in describing how they behave in nature. Another, the most enlightening, comes from the woman who worked as Nénette's first caretaker describing how long it took to get to know this animal.

It's all interesting, but in the end we still feel strangely detached from the orangutan like we, too, are only watching her from behind that pane of glass.

EIFF Premiere: "Outcast" (2009)

There is not much to say about this attempt at a horror movie. "Outcast" has unintentional laughs of the worst kind most of which are unfortunately created from a performance by Kate Dickie of Andrea Arnold's "Red Road." She plays the worst overprotective mother you may ever come across and also some sort of witch. The film has supernatural elements that are rooted in Celtic myth that start off intriguing but then spiral into absurdity and self-serious garbage.

There's also a page taken out of the "Twilight" series with a forbidden teenage love where sexual desire is something that must be avoided. A steamy session in the pouring rain within the safety of a rusty unfinished industrial building? Accounted for.

A mysterious and shadowed beast slaughters victims one by one, too, which is all fine and well until the beast gets fully revealed. Low budget, sure, but the rest of the schlock just made this an added bonus of bad. No flashy cinematography could have saved this mess where blood spills like rain, the scares are absent and there's an offensive portrayal of a mentally handicapped person to boot.

EIFF Premiere: "SoulBoy" (2010)

The city of Stroke-on-Trent, just outside larger cities like Manchester, in 1974 when the Northern Soul movement was coming to life among teenagers is the backdrop of Shimmy Marcus' "SoulBoy," a surefire feel-good movie that bursts from the screen with energy.

The film captures the soul movement wonderfully displaying a culture like we might as well be living it. Fitting then that the absolute best scenes are the ones on the dance floor most notably a clever dance-off scene. It all takes place in the Casino Club based off the real-life Wigan Club.

It's a sort of fast-forwarded coming-of-age tale of Joe (Marton Compston) who gets swooped into this hip movement because he desires to capture the attention of a girl named Jane. Of course, though, is the close friend, Mandy (Felicity Jones), who Joe unintentionally looks right past when her desires are toward him. It may sound a little all too familiar, but the pizazz and charisma exuding from the lead makes it friendly territory you won't mind treading over again.

In a sideways fashion watching "SoulBoy" reminded me of Drew Barrymore's "Whip It" perhaps in the way the unique dancing can be related to roller derby. A stretch maybe, but the idea of a character finding themselves through working at a hobby strikes me, and Ellen Page's character came to mind with her attempt echoing that of Joe's.

EIFF Premiere: "Winter's Bone" (2010)

This U.S. release from Debra Granik ("Down to the Bone") has already garnered a number of awards including the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival along with high acclaim for its phenomenal young female actress who plays the film's brave heroine. Understandable as it ranks among the best American films so far this year. "Winter's Bone" is a tale of survival, one that is chillingly embedded in realism. It takes place in the poverty-stricken, rural back-country of the Ozarks in Missouri, an unsettling and desolate place that amazingly enough actually does exist. The film was shot on location there, as well.

The survival is of 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) who somehow managed to teach herself to be strong and independent in such a cruel and potentially dangerous environment. She cares for not only her younger brother and sister but also her mentally ill mother all on her own. Her father, Jessup, has gone missing. As he's known in town as a meth cook, him being dead or alive becomes one in the same. Everyone knows of him, but nobody wants to say a word about him. Ree is used to her father running off, but this time she needs him back because he's skipped bail, and their house is threatened to be taken away. All those who might know of Jessup's whereabouts Ree approaches get angry because they, too, are engaging in illegal activities all together. They're in on it, so they're easy to suspect those on the inside. The only person of use to Ree is her father's brother, Tear Drop, presented in a riveting performance from John Hawkes ("Me and You and Everyone We Know").

What's brilliant about the film, adapted from a novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, is the way it avoids being condescending and judgmental of the people living in the Ozarks. As Ree lives among them, she doesn't look down upon them but only wants fairness from them. An entire world is created, one that is consistently haunting simply because of how authentic it feels.

The 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence is the film's astonishing discovery of talent. She holds the film the entire way as there is not one scene without her. As a heroine, she is powerfully believable playing an assured young woman whose boldness comes from simply holding faith in hoping people will do the right thing. And that impossibly still gaze of hers is mesmerizing protecting any nervousness there may be on the inside.

As much as "Winter's Bone" sucks its viewers into the despair of humanity that grips you until the end, it is still an ode to courage that is as beautiful as it is gritty and raw.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "Fog" (2009)

In "Fog," the main character, Wai (Terence Yin), confronts his ex-girlfriend, a woman who he doesn't remember. His problem? He is currently in treatment for his condition of amnesia. She tells him, "Not everyone can rewind and reset like you."

This phrase is essential to writer and director Kit Hui's film as we follow Wai through his struggle with recovering and coping with his loss of memory. In losing his memory, he moves through life as if a statue only being stimulated by bouts of drinking, smoking, drugs and sex. It's as if he's lost all emotion, as well. A devastating secret of his past, however, triggers the deepest of emotion and sends him on a path to really learn something about his own personal history.

"Fog" is a slow and quiet movie, but understandably so with the main character with whom we're dealing. He himself is a quiet man silenced from a loss of everything he's ever once known in his life as he's now just a mere shadow of this life he once had. In this respect, the film is a fascinating portrait of the enigma and fragility of memory.

EIFF Premiere: "Pelican Blood" (2009)

This isn't your typical romance in a fantastic debut from director Karl Golden. The plan was for Nikko (Harry Treadaway) to commit suicide along with his girlfriend, Stevie (Emma Booth). Only he went through with the plan, and in doing so created collateral damage of severely injuring his sister. Later, Stevie returns and they entwine themselves with each other all over again.

It's intriguing to wonder if the couple is truly in love or simply destroying each other leading themselves to a path of self-destruction. Like the couple at its center, the film itself is surprisingly playful while supremely dark in equal parts. The lead performances from Treadaway and Booth are excellent as their passions and recklessness are believable.

To understand whether Nikko and Stevie have really changed since their initial plans is impossible. Nikko is a bird watcher, and he states that once he hits 500 birds he's going to off himself. But is he serious? Stevie is an animal rights activist, and one run-in with a man stealing rare birds' eggs gets her a little too riled up. Does she throw herself into danger on purpose?

The film echoes many other indie romances in the way it is soundtrack driven. An early scene set to "Crimewave" by Crystal Castles vs. Health is inspired. The expertly structured writing from Cris Cole keeps any of this far from falling to contemporary clichés, though, by tackling disturbing thematic material of suicide with a sharp vision.

And in thinking about the powerful ending, the title of "Pelican Blood" is ingeniously metaphorical of the way a sacrificial pelican would behave in nature.

EIFF Premiere: "Skeletons" (2009)

Written and directed by Nick Whitfield, "Skeletons" is like the step brother of Michel Gondry's "Etertanal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" or Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich." It holds the off-kilter surreal elements infused into a comedy of witty characters who are just as off-kilter as their environment.

Bennett (Andrew Buckley) and Davis (Ed Gaughan) travel each week wearing suits and carrying briefcases to certain homes to perform their profession, what they call the procedure. They are a mismatched pair, Bennett big and tall while Davis is short and weasel-looking, and each actor delivers a finely humorous performance.

There is an immense sense of mystery as this duo visits their first couple leading to them preparing all their equipment, eying a closet mischievously and then, flash, nothing. This profession of theirs is kept veiled for actually a majority of the film as only bits and pieces get revealed along the way. Davis is scolded for taking advantage of their own professional capabilities diving into his own past for nostalgic value. It's called glow chasing and something their boss, a handsomely bizarre man named The Colonel (Jason Isaacs), frowns upon.

Bennett and Davis' work gets them tangled up in an assignment with a woman named Jane (Paprika Steen) in search of her missing husband. Steen is wondrously kooky and likable in this role. The assignment leaves them at Jane's house for longer than anticipated unraveling their professional lives completely, and the misadventure is captured with great cinematography.

Labeled as extraction practitioners, the men dive into history in a fantastical way that is at the same time grounded in familiar territory. It makes for a unique blend slyly addressing the figurative skeletons that people can keep inside, but it takes a while to wrap up and gets stretched a bit too far by its final end.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "Son of Babylon" (2010)

This is a film that can't be considered anything less than tough to take in, but it is one that deserves your attention. It was shot on location in Iraq to tell the story of a young boy, Ahmed, and his grandmother on the search for the boy's father who may or may not have been killed as a soldier.

A bold move on director Mohamed Al-Daradji's part as other Iraq-based films like "The Hurt Locker" shot in similar locations such as Jordan rather than Iraq itself. This real-world scenery benefits "Son of Babylon" greatly as the stark, desolate and sometimes bombed out landscape of Iraq becomes a character on its own as Ahmed and his grandma make their painstaking journey through.

Taking place in 2003 shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the film is political in nature but is anchored by a startling performance from the young actor playing Ahmed, Yassir Taleeb. He plays a charismatic boy whose lively spirit keeps hope alive even in the most devastating of moments in the film including one scene where they dig through one of the many mass graves in search for Ahmed's father.

It becomes a road movie of sorts but like one you've never seen before. Ahmed even picks up his own father figure along the way, a kind man named Musa. Still, though, the film's emphasis lies rightfully on the interaction between Ahmed and his grandma, an interaction that shows the bonds of tragedy and the faith in moving forward from it.

EIFF Premiere: "The Illusionist" (2010)

"The Illusionist" is most notably a hand drawn 2-D visual pleasure. The detail and attention to lighting and color across an expanse of landscapes is remarkably breathtaking plus one amazing swirling 3-D shot from the top of Arthur's Seat.

The film's opening alone is heartwarming as we watch a bumbling and modest-looking illusionist perform in front of audiences that consist of just a few bored spectators. We follow this struggling performer from the streets of Paris to London, Glasgow and, finally, the awe inspiring landscape of Edinburgh where most of the tale takes place.

There is little to no dialogue with only short exchanges of gibberish mumblings in a variety of languages. This becomes fitting, however, as the small girl the illusionist picks up in his travels doesn't even speak his language. Their interaction, and as a result the film itself, becomes poetically simple and beyond any needed verbal communication.

The illusionist unintentionally shows the girl a world of magic where he can seemingly make wonderful possessions appear before her eyes. But since it is not that simple, the illusionist finds himself attempting smaller menial jobs for extra money. Meanwhile all around him he watches failing performers and entertainers.

The girl is left with a note saying, "Magicians do not exist," and in that notion, the film becomes a contemplation on the possibility of finding magic in one's life. Even among the despair by the story's end, there is a glimmer of hope with instances of magic that don't even require fabrication.

While whimsical and charming, "The Illusionist" also holds undertones of deep, aching sadness. Such a mood is accompanied by a beautiful musical score by the director himself, Sylvain Chomet. This is the director's second animated feature after the Academy Award-nominated "The Triplets of Belleville." If luck has it, this film will hopefully find itself in a similar position because it's definitely worthy.

Monday, June 14, 2010

After some miscommunication and regathering of information, I have in my possession my delegate pass for the 2010 Edinburgh Film Festival.

Upon browsing over the industry screening selections with Carter Moulton, founder of Film Gazing, we have set on a rough outline of how the following weeks will go in terms of what films we'll each be seeing.

It all kicks off with the industry screening of Sylvain Chomet's animated feature and opening night gala for the festival, "The Illusionist."

Starting tomorrow I'll be headed out to the theaters to see two to four films a day, so stay tuned for frequent updates and reviews of films from the festival.

And as an unfortunate note, the industry screening of the highly-anticipated UK premiere of "Toy Story 3" is supposedly by invite only. That's not going to stop me from standing at the doorway trying to get inside. We'll have to wait and see how that unfolds.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"The Killer Inside Me" (2010)

Director Michael Winterbottom's "The Killer Inside Me" succeeds in that it is as difficult and challenging to take as is reading the original 1950s novel by Jim Thompson from which the movie is adapted. It also succeeds in being an unconventional tale of a sociopath and a murderer, one that comes from the perspective of not the villains but rather the one doing the killing. It makes for chilling subject matter, most notably that of the upsetting and literally pulverizing, brutal violence. It becomes central to the story of Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) and the poor souls who fall victim to him, especially the women in his life, Joyce (Jessica Alba) and Amy (Kate Hudson). The fact that the most disturbing fits of violence are inflicted upon them gives the film a heavy weight. Misogynistic and masochistic as it may be, when dealing with the mind of a man like this, Winterbottom is daring in that he doesn't let viewers turn away from it.

Set in western Texas in the small town of Central City in 1959, the film is anchored by a hauntingly unsettling portrait of Lou Ford by the talented Casey Affleck who has done similarly moody pieces before such as "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "Gone Baby Gone." While mostly introverted, Affleck's sly, maniacal smiles and sometimes downright bizarre voiceovers and instances where he talks to himself make him terrifying, a symbol of uncontrollable yet unforeseeable chaos. The way Affleck's Lou interacts with people he meets and police colleagues make him out to be an eccentric character, not a murderous man, which creates a figure to be feared even more.

Also in line with Thompson's novel is the facade of 1950s life in a small city where everyone is satisfied with the status quo. The prostitute, Joyce, residing inside the city needs to be expelled by means that are behind the scenes, means that spark the remarkable bouts of violence to follow. The bubbly period piece soundtrack keeps this sense of irony afloat with dark and unruly undertones of Lou Ford's manic psychology. This tension makes for a very uneasy feeling, one that is oddly fitting considering the pervading theme of nothing being as it appears.

As Winterbottom's first American film, this is an ambitious start. Still though, something about "The Killer Inside Me" adaptation feels like a missed opportunity. The pieces are all there, but some don't fully connect into place. There is a little too much emphasis on menial plot points than Lou Ford's endlessly fascinating inner self. As well of a job as Affleck does, he could have been given even more. With such, this remains only a good movie and never a truly great one.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The program for the 2010 Edinburgh Film Festival is finally here! Some noteworthy films to see are "Get Low" starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, along with the comedic documentary "The People vs. George Lucas," what looks to be a British "Team America" called "Jackboots on Whitehall." Other ones that stood out are "Cherry Tree Lane," "HIGH School" and "brilliantlove."

The opening night film, "The Illusionist," still looks like a great start, and "Toy Story 3" will have its special 3-D gala screening.

The closing night film is a British buddy comedy called "Third Star."

Steven Soderbergh and Werner Herzog's latest films will be appearing.

Sir Patrick Stewart of "Star Trek" and "X-Men" will be there, too.

Simply said, there's a lot of great stuff going on. Some unknown films, some known, directors and appearances all around. With so much happening, I have to get started on planning out my days at the festival as soon as possible.

Only time will tell what films are the big hits that must be seen for sure.

So, here's to June 16 when Sylvain Chomet's "The Illutionist" kicks things off!

See you then.

Check out this online brochure for the festival and this news release from the official site about the program.