The 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival is officially under way – last night the opening film, Killer Joe, screened in Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, and though I wasn’t there I do wonder how it went down. It’s a provocative movie, and if it gets people arguing then at least it’s got people talking; last year’s deliberately unglamorous festival didn’t achieve even that. The screening was attended by its director, William Friedkin, who the night before introduced a screening of his classic The French Connection in the Filmhouse, and actress Gina Gershon; jury members Jim Broadbent and Elliott Gould were also in attendance.
After Friedkin’s memorable opener, I started my Festival with Pusher, that most suspicious of film product: a dreaded English-language remake. The original, a cult Danish film from the ’90s, was the first film from director Nicolas Winding Refn, of whom I have been a fan since seeing his underrated Fear X almost a decade ago at this very Festival. The original – the first in a trilogy directed by Refn – was an earthy, gritty movie aimed more at realism than the new one, which is a more stylistic exercise. It transports the action from Copenhagen to London, and makes a few interesting tweaks to the story which make significant differences, however the basic plot – of a drug dealer in desperate need of money – is largely unchanged. Its London setting feels organic and its style seems closer to Refn than the original did; this is a little strange given that the new version is directed by someone else, the Spanish filmmaker Luis Prieto. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Full review here.
The first year I attended the Film Festival – with the exception of a special screening of the 1925 Phantom of the Opera that was put on for the Festival’s 50th, complete with orchestra and organ – was in 1999, where I recall being completely star-struck at the presence of Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo at the premiere of The Thomas Crown Affair (another decent remake). That same year there was a lot of buzz about a horror movie the Festival was playing called The Blair Witch Project. It was about the same time I was really getting into horror; the same year, “The Exorcist” had been released on video in the UK for the first time ever. The film went on to be an unprecedented hit, and one of its two directors, Eduardo Sánchez, is back at the Festival with his latest offering, Lovely Molly.
Perhaps the problem starts with that unmemorable title (I keep wanting to call it “Hello, Molly!”); if not it perhaps starts with the opening shot, of a girl recording herself giving a terrified monologue, in close-up, into a video camera. You’d think between “Blair Witch” and now these people might realise that they can film themselves on a camera without, you know, actually holding it. Or perhaps the problem is just down to the banal, uninspired script. Lead actress Gretchen Lodge throws herself into the role, but the film lets her down and she’s unconvincing. In my review (available here) I mention the fact that of the many films it reminded me of, one that I kept thinking about was Let’s Scare Jessica To Death from 1971. When I got home that’s exactly what I watched; “Lovely Molly” doesn’t hold a candle to it.
After the disappointment of “Lovely Molly” I hoped that Guinea Pigs, a new British horror flick, might offer some of the B-movie fun I had hoped for. It comes close, but just doesn’t quite get there. The film is set in a compound where a group of – mostly – young people (there’s one token older guy, and one token non-white person) have signed up for a medical experiment. Things go wrong, and it’s fair to say there are probably fewer cast members standing at the end than there were at the beginning. The film is relatively well made and acted – among its stars is Alex Reid, one of the ‘chicks with picks’ from The Descent, and up-and-comer Aneurin Barnard (from Hunky Dory). However after hoping it might develop into some gruesome fun the film doesn’t go far enough in any one direction; I wasn’t exactly bored, but I’ve seen so many movies like it that I can’t imagine it will linger in the memory for long. It doesn’t help that I was able to predict at the start, with prescience that surprised even me, the order in which the cast would be ticked off.
I rounded yesterday off with Fred, directed by Richard Ledes and starring Elliott Gould. Almost a whole generation probably thinks of Gould as the guy from Ocean’s 11 who pops up in “Friends.” This borders on tragic. Gould made his name in 1969 with Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice before being hired to play Trapper John in a movie about a hospital unit during the Korean War. The studio, 20th Century Fox, was so busy with its other war movie, Tora! Tora! Tora!, that not much attention was being paid to what these guys were doing, and Gould and co-star Donald Sutherland ended up complaining to the studio because their director, a relatively unknown Robert Altman, seemed not to know what he was doing.
The movie, of course, was M*A*S*H, and it started Altman on a run of films as good as those of any other director in the ’70s (and that’s saying something). Gould, so the story goes, admitted to Altman that he had complained about him, and apologised, while Sutherland did not. Sutherland didn’t work with Altman again, but Gould worked with him three more times, in The Long Goodbye, California Split and (briefly, playing himself) in Nashville, for my money one of the greatest movies ever made. If you have any doubts about his abilities, immediately go out and buy The Long Goodbye, in which he plays Philip Marlowe in a film that transports Raymond Chandler’s story and character to the 1970s. Gould’s performance is unforgettable; you’ll forget all about the other versions of Marlowe, and given that list includes one of Bogart’s most famous performances, that’s quite an achievement.
As well as acting on the Jury, Gould will be at Festival doing a Q&A on Saturday. In “Fred,” he plays an elderly man succumbing to dementia. His wife, Susan, has pretty severe Alzheimer’s. Their son, Bob, and his wife, Carol (the names surely cannot be a coincidence) arrive with their daughter for a visit, although underlying it is the growing necessity to move the couple into a nursing home. Susan is played by Judith Roberts, the ‘Beautiful Girl Across The Hall’ in Eraserhead and Bob is played by Fred Melamed, who gave a particularly memorable performance in A Serious Man.
The film is a snapshot of this family and these problems, and it has very little dramatic thrust; I worried at the beginning that it looked like a rather self-indulgent indie flick. However as soon as it established its scenario and the characters, I became interested in them. It is not an action-driven film in the slightest, it doesn’t really have an ‘arc,’ but by sidestepping these things it creates some memorable, unforced moments and exchanges. There have been a number of films recently using Alzheimer’s as a plot device (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 50/50, Friends With Benefits) and these representations often trouble me (“Friends With Benefits” was the most egregious example, with the great Richard Jenkins reduced to a sweet old forgettable guy with the ability to remember exactly what the plot requires of him).
Here the characters are not manipulated, and neither is the audience. There are touching moments, such as a lovely scene where Susan and her family sing songs as a form of therapy for her, but they seem to rise organically from the characters. Gould is the stand-out but all four performances ring true. It is not a film for everyone – its slow pace and lack of narrative drive will bore many, and there were walkouts at the screening I attended – but after being a little wary I found myself gradually warming to the film and the characters.
The press and industry screenings are starting to come thick and fast now; tomorrow I find myself having to choose between films called Eddie – The Sleepwalking Cannibal and Sexual Chronicles of a French Family. I don’t know anything about them except the titles, but the titles, frankly, are enough to intrigue me. News has come through that Robert Carlyle, due to attend the Festival with his film California Solo, has sadly cancelled due to sickness, but I still look forward to the film. Tonight there will be a special screening of Lawrence of Arabia at the Filmhouse on a newly restored digital print; I recall when the Festival was all film, and have watched the ratio gradually slip towards digital. Now it’s all digital, which makes sense from a practical point of view. From a more romantic point of view, I’m not so sure. I have seen “Lawrence of Arabia”, one of my favourite movies, in the Filmhouse myself, and when I did it was being projected on a near-pristine 70mm print; it was one of the best film-going experiences of my life. I’m with Christopher Nolan on this: 3 million pixels still don’t add up to one frame of the best film stock going.