Documentaries continue to impress at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival with Desert Runners, a hugely inspiring and compelling doc that focuses on people who run (as best they can) a set of Ultra Marathons, four 250km races across four of the world’s toughest deserts – the Atacama in Chile, Gobi in China, Sahara in Egypt and the Antarctica – all within the space of a year.
There’s north of 100 people from all walks of life and countries who take part in this astonishing physical feat but Jennifer Steinman’s well observed film focuses on a handful of the more interesting competitors. One of the pleasures of it is simply getting to know these people along their incredibly arduous journeys and being moved and inspired by the various reasons each of them have for attempting something like this.
These include Dave, an 57-year-old Irishman who wants to prove he can pull it off even at his age; Ricky, an American now living in England who has let his athleticism fall by the wayside; and Tremaine, who’s doing it in honour of his wife whom he lost to cancer the year before. They’re all bound by a couple of things: their passion for running and an inherent need to prove themselves.
Steinman’s intimate yet all encapsulating approach gives the film a real sense of power, putting us right along with these competitors in some of the world’s harshest conditions – try to imagine running in 40 degree Celsius heat for 12 hours straight and you get a glimpse of the idea – and making you feel determined on their behalf. If and when someone drops out part way through you really feel the pain and disappointment of them getting so near and yet so far.
While it may sound like it would get repetitive just watching people run four races, it’s anything but. Steinman keeps things dynamic, jumping from competitor to competitor at different stages and including some shocking turn of events along the way. Desert Runners is a dynamic look at an extreme sport most people probably won’t have heard of, run by everyday people and presented in an involving, moving and inspiring way.
I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.
I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
MEL Gibson steps behind the camera for the first time since 2006’s brutal Mayan action adventure Apocalypto for this similarly uncompromising gut shot of a WWII film. This isn’t an ordinary war film about brave men joining to fight for their country, bearing arms to do so. No, this is the tale of Desmond Moss (Andrew Garfield), an idealistic young man who wants to serve without firing a single bullet.
Despite pleadings from his battle-scarred WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) and distraught bride-to-be Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), he signs up and goes off to fight as a conscientious objector. However, his obdurate refusal to even touch a gun, much less take another human being’s life, causes troubles during his training – “You know, quite a bit of killing does occur in a war,” he is blankly told by his miffed Captain (Sam Worthington) – and he is even threatened with a military prison. But refusing to back down from his principals, he is eventually allowed to serve as a pacifist medic among the madness.
It’s an unashamedly idealistic film through and through. The earlier scenes almost feeling cosy (sometimes to a fault) as Desmond courts his future fiancé and speaks with pride about how, “while everybody is taking life I’m going to be saving it, and that’s going to be my way to serve”.
This is to reflect the principled path Desmond has set for himself: from the beginning right up until its credits – which inevitably show the real life man himself – the film holds him up as a special kind of war hero.
The Hacksaw Ridge of the title is the so nicknamed main battleground during the Battle of Okinawa and the centre-piece of Gibson’s unrelentingly brazen approach to wartime action. Although violence within his directorial work is certainly not a new thing – lest we forget how brutal and bloody the likes of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ are – it nevertheless feels like a fresh and reinvigorated directorial style. The initial assault as the men climb up and over the ridge on a massed web of rope is a masterclass in horribly, unflinchingly realistic carnage: bullets whizzing and thudding against and through bodies as they run and shoot and fall and blow up, engulfing the frame to give a realistic sense of what it would have been like. It’s one of the best war movie sequences since the opening of Saving Private Ryan, one that contains some truly stark imagery that stays with you.
The film presents an interesting dichotomy between Desmond’s wide-eyed, almost romantic view of what war will be like for him and the horrors of what it’s actually like once he’s up on the ridge, scrambling with his medical kit among the bloodshed. Is it arrogant for him to think he can serve without firing a gun while other men gladly put their lives on the line at the barrel of one? And what happens when he’s posed an immediate him-or-me threat on the battlefield?
Set to an at once rousing and pounding score by Rupert Gregson-Williams and anchored by Garfield’s committed and powerfully moving performance, this is Gibson back after a decade to show that he can direct the hell out of any story. The fact that it’s such an incredible true one makes it all the more effective. 4/5
IF last year’s Trolls didn’t give you enough brightly-coloured, peppy-animated energy then here to fill that void is Sing – the music-filled animation from Illumination Entertainment, aka the studio that the Minions built.
Matthew McConaughey leads an all-star voice cast as Buster Moon, an eternally optimistic koala bear who has the idea of holding a singing competition for every creature great and small of the city – from the tallest giraffe to the smallest mouse – in an attempt to save his struggling theatre from closing down.
When a harmless mistake occurs with the prize money amount on the fliers ($100,000 instead of just $100) he finds himself overrun with amateur singers all desperate to make the big time and claim the prize he can’t afford. These include Johnny the gorilla (Taron Egerton), Rosita the housewife pig (Reese Witherspoon) and Mike the con artist mouse (Seth MacFarlane).
Last summer’s mammoth hit Zootropolis – also about animals going about city life as if they were human – comes immediately to mind and it just doesn’t have the same sort of consistent wittiness and depth beyond its pretty single-minded concept. It’s essentially an animated X Factor but with singing animals and it plays that note to the Nth degree. But it’s a note that it hits with a polished slickness and enjoyable bravado.
There’s something inherently funny about seeing a pig, so fed up with her domesticated and repetitive housewife lifestyle, singing Shake It Off ;or a gorilla, desperate to avoid the life of crime his overbearing father has earmarked for him, belting out Stay With Me. It’s all a bit like being hit over the head with a jukebox but, you know, in a fun kind of way. 3/5
DIRECTOR Mick Jackson’s courtroom drama – adapted by playwright David Hare from the non-fiction book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier – focuses on the quite galling true story of American writer and historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz).
In 1996, she had a libel suit brought against her and her publisher Penguin Books by British historian and infamous Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). Deborah is then forced from her relatively quiet teaching life in New York to the courts of London, where she is presented with a very different legal system to the one of her homeland; over here, the burden of proof is on the accused rather than the accuser.
With the help of a formidable but regulation-hampered legal team – including barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) and solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) – she mounts her case against a man she professionally discredited and personally loathes for denying an atrocity, the occurrence of which she can’t believe would ever be doubted.
Most of the film takes place in and around the court as the trial goes on, both sides adamant and presenting their case like fighters throwing punches in a ring. Their lightbulb moment of defensive approach is to make Irving’s prejudice and thinly veiled twisting of facts the thing on trial.
The talky drama presented by the rather pedestrian direction can feel stagey and televisual, like it belongs more as a multi-part BBC series than up on the big-screen. And it’s one of those films where the outcome – even if you don’t know the true story – is earmarked from the beginning. That and the general feeling that “of course he’s in the wrong” does drain a lot of the tension out of the unfolding drama.
But there are some excellent performances – particularly from Weisz as the inspirationally steadfast Deborah and Spall as the self-righteous Irving – and there’s no doubting its timeliness as a film about kindness and understanding going up against bigotry and hate. 3/5
THIS piercing, unique and peculiarly powerful film gives us an unsettlingly up-close-and-personal look at the gunshot heard around the world and more specifically the effect that had on one of the people closest to it. Framed via her interview with Life magazine’s Theodore H White (Billy Crudup), we see how Jackie Kennedy’s life was utterly shattered by the assassination of her husband President John F Kennedy. She tries to pick up the pieces with the help of her brother-in-law Bobby (a terrific Peter Sarsgaard) as they plan the all-important funeral.
There have been many films made about that most famous assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas – not least Oliver Stone’s seminal investigatory drama JFK – as well as about Mrs Kennedy herself, but this decisively unorthodox biopic does that rarest of things: it gives us a fresh perspective on a subject about which we thought we knew everything.
The lead role is a tall ask, especially if you need to capture the likeness and mannerisms of one of the most famous women of the 20th century, while never stepping over the mark into unintentional caricature. But Portman is more than up to the task by giving a complex, fascinating performance that conveys the utter shock thrust upon a woman of poise and grace.
It’s a near-perfect imitation – showcased in the recreation of the famous White House tour she gave in 1962 – but there is something more than that going on under the surface, a subtle specificity to the way she plays it that makes her feel like a real person as well as the larger-than-life icon.
Some of the film’s most compelling scenes are simply those which allow the camera to linger on close-ups of her face as she looks in the mirror to wipe her husband’s blood and brains off her face; standing in utter shock next to Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) on the plane as he’s sworn in as the new President while her husband lies dead; or walking aimlessly around the White House trying on dresses like a phantom suddenly rendered useless in her own life. She can do absolutely nothing about what’s happened to her except try and take it in her stride as best she can while the eyes the world waits to see what she does or says next. “Don’t think for one minute I’m going to let you publish that,” she tells White as he probes her with unforgiving interview questions a mere week after her husband’s death, so desperate to control what the public will think of her now.
She’s engulfed by a mesmeric, alluring and deeply unsettling tone captured by Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s directorial approach that is so at odds with what we’ve come to expect from a traditional biopic.
Then there’s the wonderfully strange score by Mica Levi which swaps orthodox biopic score swellings for sombre piano thuds and warped other-worldly sounds that carries over the peculiarity of her magnificent work on Under the Skin. The soundtrack perfectly conveys the simultaneous sense of shock and overwhelming grief that permeates the film as a whole.
Most movies come and go without making much of a lasting impact, providing entertainment for their runtime but not much more than that. Jackie is no such film. It’s a stunning combination of performance and mood that makes for a singularly powerful cinematic experience that isn’t easy to shake from the mind. 5/5
THE infamous story of 29-year-old TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck has gone on to spark not one but two films about her life and, more specifically, her suicide on live television in the summer of 1974.
Last year we had the part documentary, dramatized re-enactment Kate Plays Christine which saw actress Kate Lyn Sheil attempt to get inside the mindsight (and physical appearance) of a woman who would ultimately choose to shoot herself on the air.
This is a more straightforward but no less affecting film that focuses on Christine’s (Rebecca Hall) day-to-day time as a reporter in Sarasota, Florida. She does her best to tell stories she feels matter while becoming increasingly frustrated by the sensationalism that has crept into the business and her channel in particular as it struggles to compete in the ratings.
There are certain script issues which speaks to scriptwriter Craig Shilowhich’s first-time effort, not least a meandering quality to some of the subplots, particularly one involving Christine’s co-worker George (Michael C Hall) wanting to date her that feels unneeded in the larger scope of the picture.
But it’s significantly elevated by a kind of low-key intensity in the direction by Antonio Campos (Simon Killer, Afterschool), as well as Hall’s truly captivating and poignant central performance. Hall plays her with more than just a woman-on-the-edge conventionality, bringing pathos and complexity to a determined but deeply troubled human being.
The “if it bleeds – it leads” mantra that so informed the sensationalism-themed Nightcrawler (a strange companion piece to this film in many ways) and relayed to her team by her no-nonsense boss Michael (Tracy Letts) infuriated Christine more than anything, the inhumanity of it for the sake of viewership compounding her fragile state of depression and anxiety.
Christine’s notorious final words were: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living colour, you are going to see another first – attempted suicide.” Would you look away? It’s an uncomfortable question that this disquieting film isn’t afraid to ask with stark, haunting clarity backed up with empathy and understanding. 4/5
SOME stories are so incredible that they simply must be true. Few other films this year are likely to exemplify that sentiment better than Lion. Based on his memoir A Long Way Home, the film tells the true story of Saroo Brierley, a five-year-old boy (played by adorable newcomer Sunny Pawar) living in extreme poverty with his hard-working mother and siblings.
One night he goes out to a train station with his older brother Guddu to scavenge for any work. But after accidentally falling asleep Saroo wakes up frightened and alone, inadvertently boarding a decommissioned train that carries him 1,600 kilometres away to bustling Calcutta where he struggles desperately to find his way back home. He is eventually found and subsequently adopted by Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a loving middle-class Australian couple who want to help give disadvantaged kids a better start in life.
25 years later Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is at university looking to start a career in hotel management and is generally living a good life. However, the memories of his past and his true origins haunt him. And so he sets himself the seemingly impossible task of finding where he came from, pushing away his caring family and girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) in the process.
Lion certainly doesn’t work because of its form, which sticks mainly to conventionality in an attempt to make it appeal to as wide and mainstream of an audience as possible. Nor is it particularly adept at exploring the various racial and privilege themes teased by its attention-grabbing real-life tale.
It’s a crowd-pleasing success because of the compelling performances, namely a never-better Patel, and empathy it has for the central character’s deeply personal and ambitious plight. How is he supposed to find home when he barely remembers it beyond a town name and the fleeting image of a water tank across from the station platform in which he awoke a quarter of a century ago? Director Garth Davis’ manages to make Saroo’s search feel cinematic in its own way – who knew someone scrolling through Google Earth could be so riveting?
It’s not exactly as Earth-shattering as perhaps its unbelievable true story suggests, and often feels hampered by its need to be a safe, dependable watch. But there’s much heart and sincerity to admire here and plenty of sweeping emotion in which to get swept up. 3/5