THIS year's Edinburgh International Film Festival screens its best movie so far this weekend with the European premiere of Winter's Bone (*****), a terse, hardscrabble, neo-detective story set in the desolate, closed-off, bleakly beautiful environs of Missouri's Ozark mountain region.
• 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a girl who's been forced to grow up entirely too quickly in an isolated corner of America. Picture: Complimentary
It's a tough, no-nonsense film, with a tough, no-nonsense protagonist, and the kind of slow-burning, ominous atmosphere that gets under your skin and lingers for days.
That protagonist is Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who is 17 but has been forced to grow up entirely too quickly in an isolated corner of America where people don't take kindly to strangers and a frontier attitude to crime and punishment still exists. Short on money, but with a firm moral code, Ree is primary carer for her little brother, sister and mentally ill mother, and their small house and neighbouring patch of woodland are the only assets keeping them from the breadline.
That becomes more of a problem when Ree learns that her long-absent, recently imprisoned father has put their property up as collateral for his bail bond. With his court hearing imminent, he's nowhere to be found, leaving Ree less than a week to track him down before her family is made homeless.
Writer/director Debra Granik uses this up-against-it scenario to brilliant effect to fully immerse us in Ree's quest. As she knowingly enters a dangerous world of tight-lipped locals, backwoods crystal meth labs and relatives with a less-than-loving sense of kinship, we get a complete sense of who this girl is thanks to a carefully calibrated performance from Lawrence that negates the need for any tedious expository back-story.
It's a performance that's beautifully in synch with Granik's approach. With a cast comprised of local inhabitants and weathered character actors (John Hawkes as Ree's not-to-be-messed-with uncle is the stand-out), a soundtrack filled with old mountain ballads, and some haunting cinematography that captures the landscape with spare lyricism, the film has an incredible sense of place that helps it deliver the basic pleasures of a thriller while transcending genre restrictions to become something more deeply affecting. American independent cinema doesn't get much better.
Fans of Star Wars yet to tire of bashing George Lucas for making Gredo shoot first or raping their childhoods with The Phantom Menace could do worse than check out The People vs George Lucas (****), a light-hearted, surprisingly balanced exploration of the peculiar relationship Lucas has with the vast army of fans who've dedicated themselves to his pop culture-altering creation.
Befitting the court hearing-style title, the film weighs up the evidence for and against Lucas to see if any of the vitriol – which began around the time he started tinkering with his original trilogy to make the controversial "Special Editions" – is justified.
Mercifully, director Alexandre O'Philippe doesn't just call to the stand disgruntled fanboys. Some of his witnesses are surprisingly credible, whether railing against the director for the choices he's made, or supporting his freedom as a filmmaker. Novelist Neil Gaiman, for instance, acknowledges the rights of fans to take ownership of an artist's creation once it's out in the world, but refutes the fan-held belief that they have any right to dictate how a writer or filmmaker should use any of their characters or stories in their future work.
Meanwhile, original Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz laments the way Lucas's updated versions of the first three films callously discarded all the cutting edge effects work that made the original Star Wars an Oscar-winning success – an act of cultural vandalism akin to the colourisation of black-and-white films, something Lucas, ironically, led the campaign against.
For every reasoned argument, however, there are dozens more extreme ones from fans who never quite got over seeing the original films when they were seven. Most of these self-styled nerds have a healthy sense of their own ridiculousness (many of them are comedians or writers who have presumably made money out of exploring their love/hate relationship with Lucas in their work). Yet there are plenty of hardcore fanatics out there who could certainly do with a reality check. The amount of time and effort some of them spend venting their anger online via fan films or painstakingly creating "fan edits" of the prequels (in which they make their own versions by cutting out everything that they hate) seems a little on the nutty side – and I say that as someone who actually queued up for seven hours to see The Phantom Menace at Mann's Chinese Theatre in LA on opening day (who knew?). The People vs George Lucas is certainly comprehensive enough to lay this largely pointless debate to rest once and for all. That it won't is part of the maddening appeal of Star Wars.
Steven Soderbergh revisits one of his early film projects in And Everything is Going Fine (****), a documentary tribute to the late Spalding Grey: monologist, "poetic journalist" and subject of Soderbergh's 1996 film Grey's Anatomy.
Culled from 90 hours of performance and archival interview footage, Soderbergh has crafted a deceptively simple and unflashy film that allows Grey to tell his life story in his own wonderfully rich way while subtly reveals the emotional and mental struggles Grey had living a life in which he struggled to delineate what was for public consumption and what should have remained private. In the age of reveal all blogging it makes for moving and sobering viewing.
• Winter's Bone is at the Filmhouse, tomorrow, 8:15pm and Sunday, 3:45pm. The People vs George Lucas, is at the Filmhouse, today, 7:45pm and tomorrow, 3:30pm. And Everything is Going Fine is at the Filmhouse, tomorrow and Sunday at 6:30pm