Saturday, 19 June 2010

The 63rd Edinburgh International Film Festival

Around this time last year, I remember praying that if Shane Meadows didn’t make any more films in the next 12 months, the 63rd Edinburgh International Film Festival might just be worth going to. Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

The good news is that despite celebrating its 63rd birthday with a stupendously underwhelming Opening Night film (Sam Mendes’ Away We Go), the Edinburgh International Film Festival isn’t ready for retirement yet.

The bad news is that God is a harsh, capricious mistress and my prayers went unanswered; Shane Meadows somehow managed to get his hands on a camera and Paddy Considine and is back with Le Donk, a free-wheeling mockumentary that’s about as amusing as an Ebola outbreak in a ward full of haemophiliacs. Le Donk (Paddy Considine) is one of life’s also-rans, a legendary Rock roadie and hanger-on. Now managing shambolic Midlands rapper Scorz-Ayz-Ee (played by real-life shambolic Midlands rapper Scorz-Ayz-Ee), the film follows Le Donk’s efforts to get his prodigy on the bill with the Arctic Monkeys (whom he ‘hilariously’ keeps calling the Article Monkeys) and along the way he imparts the wisdom and wit we’d expect of a man who’s been setting up for bands for twenty years. If you’re stoned or if you’ve never seen Steve Coogan’s superior Saxondale (in which a legendary roadie imparts the wit and wisdom of a man who’s been setting up for bands for twenty years to a younger, dumber sidekick) you might get the occasional smirk out of Le Donk but if you’re sober it’s 74 minute running time feels at least an hour too long.

Allegedly a comedy, Opening Night film Away We Go is yet another shoe-gazing mope through the lives of a couple of middle-class, thirty-something slackers and the existential crisis they face as they try to get to grips with adulthood and figure out the best place to settle down and spawn. Directed on autopilot by Sam Mendes, Away We Go is the type of laid-back, unfunny, comedy mumbleathon normally made by earnest young indie directors and starring earnest, young indie actors with names like Zooey. Full of the kind of loveably eccentric kooks you’d cheerfully garrotte if they existed anywhere outside of smug, self-satisfied films about thirty-something slackers, Away We Go is like being stuck at a dinner party full of Guardian columnists. And not the fun ones like Charlie Brooker. No, we’re talking about the whiny, spoilt ones like Lucy Mangan. Hopefully at some point in the future, some genius will decide to programme Away We Go as one half of a double bill with Sam’s recent laugh-fest Revolutionary Road.

Far funnier was Justin Molotnikov’s dark, little Scottish film Crying With Laughter. Equal parts black comedy and Cape Fear-style revenge thriller, Crying With Laughter charts the worst week in Edinburgh stand-up comic Joey Frisk’s (Stephen McCole) life as a chance meeting with old school friend Frank (Malcolm Shields) leads to him being made homeless, framed for attempted murder and involved in a kidnapping as old scores are settled and the guilty are punished. Scots actor Stephen McCole is fantastic as the put-upon comic and his performance is hilariously un-PC and subtly vulnerable with Shields a sympathetic, if relentless, villain and the final revelation, while signposted far in advance is, nonetheless, affecting and goes some way to explaining Frisk’s angry, misanthropic stage persona.

While there were the usual honourable examples of British miserablism (A Boy Called Dad, Running In Traffic), most of this year’s crop of British films were surprisingly satisfying. Mad, Sad & Bad with its neurotic family in meltdown felt like a British-Asian version of a Woody Allen film. Except that unlike Woody’s recent output, it was mildly amusing. Lindy Heymann’s KICKS, however, was anything but, playing more like a Merseyside-version of Misery. Scary and compassionate, KICKS skillfully dissects Britain’s obsession with celebrity culture as its two teenage wannabee WAGs (Kerrie Hayes and Nichola Burley) kidnap the object of their affections, swaggering footballer Lee (Jamie Doyle), in an attempt to stop his transfer to another team. What starts out as a lark, with the girls leading Lee on with the promise of a threesome (he even willingly allows them to tie him up!), swiftly spirals out of control when the girls’ true agenda is revealed and Lee’s misogynistic inner-lad rears his ugly head. Dark and edgy, KICKS explores the hollow ambitions of the Heat-generation without ever demonising it’s teen protagonists and the intensity of the friendship between Hayes and Burley echoes that of the murderous teens in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.

Andrea Arnold’s eagerly awaited Fish Tank, while a little too long and somewhat predictable, was far more satisfying than her excellent, if chilly, debut Red Road. Ostensibly a coming of age tale, Fish Tank feels more like a chav retelling of Lolita as tough, abrasive, 15 going on 35-year old Mia (Katie Jarvis) dreams of escaping her dysfunctional family and no-hope housing estate through her talents as a dancer. Slowly she becomes enamoured of her trashy mother’s too-attentive new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) and I’m not letting any cats out of bags by revealing it all ends in tears. Far from downbeat, Fish Tank is an affecting, entertaining film about life on the margins, featuring fantastic performances from first-time actress Katie Jarvis, the ever-dependable Fassbender and a scene-stealing turn by Rebecca Griffiths as Mia’s potty-mouthed little sister.

Duncan Ward’s scabrous satire Boogie Woogie turns a jaundiced eye on the London art scene. With a cast to die for (everyone from Christopher Lee, Charlotte Rampling and Joanna Lumley to Alan Cumming, Heather Graham and American starlet Amanda Seyfried), Boogie Woogie’s densely layered narrative lays bare the vapid, superficial world of the YBAs, the Shoreditch wannabees and the Russian oligarchs who throw money at anything as long as they think it’s ART. Unfortunately, like the world it portrays, Boogie Woogie is a little glib, a little soulless. It’s entertaining but doesn’t linger long in the memory after the end credits. It’s all surface gloss and glitz, its hugely talented cast for the most part wasted in one-dimensional roles with all the subtlety of a Christmas panto in Woking. In fact, I’d pay good money to see Alan Cumming play Mother Goose while Danny Huston’s scenery-chewing turn would make for a great Big Bad Wolf. The heart of the film for me, however, is Jaime Winstone’s cocky, Cockney lesbian video-artist Elaine whose work consists of documenting her own salacious life in minute detail. Spiky and ambitious, willing to betray anyone and anything to get to the top, Elaine’s membership form for the Groucho club is probably already in the post.

The best of this year’s crop of British films however was the excellent Moon. A tight little sci-fi thriller more interested in the psychological effects of isolation than in explosions and wham bam action, Moon features fantastic performances from Sam Rockwell and, well, Sam Rockwell. Rockwell plays Sam, a lonely miner stationed on an isolated moonbase who’s coming to the end of his three-year contract and looking forward to getting back to his wife and daughter, his sole companion a robot called GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). But after crashing his moon buggy, Sam starts to doubt his own sanity when he finds his base invaded by a stranger. A stranger named Sam. A stranger who looks exactly like him. And just how trustworthy is GERTY? Rockwell is a revelation as Sam, playing two very different sides of the same character, and Kevin Spacey makes GERTY a charming and slightly sinister presence, both caring and menacing, an echo of 2001’s HAL 9000. Brilliantly directed by the artist formerly known as Zowie Bowie (David Bowie’s sickeningly talented son Duncan Jones) on an ultra-low budget of $5million, Moon is both a fascinating study of paranoia loneliness and a thrilling vision of the near-future which stays with you long after you’ve left the cinema.

This year’s Retrospective strand featured the work of one of the last true Hollywood mavericks; Roger Corman. An independent before there were independents and the undisputed king of low-budget filmmaking, Corman’s made and released somewhere in the region of 300 films as a writer, director and producer in a career that spans the ‘50s to the present day. They haven’t all been good. In fact, many of them have been terrible. But along the way he’s given us classics like the Vincent Price-starring Edgar Allan Poe movies of the ‘60s, ground-breaking gangster movies like Bloody Mama, biker movies like The Wild Angels and the psychedelic lunacy of The Trip, while playing midwife to generations of filmmakers as diverse as Scorsese, Coppola and the Movie Brats, Jack Nicholson, Charles Bronson, Joe Dante, James Cameron and Russian wunderkind Timur Bekmambetov all of whom got their start courtesy of Uncle Roger’s ‘film school’. Now in his eighties, Corman’s still working and his entertaining appearance as part of the In Person strand was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.

As ever at Edinburgh some of the most enjoyable films were part of the Night Moves strand; late night genre movies to see you through the midnight hour. Tense and claustrophobic, first-time director Stuart Hazeldine’s Exam is an ambitious little shocker. Unfolding in real time, Exam’s killer premise take’s a disparate group of strangers, puts them in a sealed room with an armed guard, a scary invigilator (Colin Salmon) and some simple rules: leave the room and you’re disqualified, talk to the guard and you’re disqualified, spoil your paper and you’re disqualified. However, when the invigilator instructs them to begin, the candidates turn over their papers to reveal a blank sheet without a question… As the candidates turn on each other and descend into mind-games and desperate violence the audience quickly realises that there’s more at stake than just a job and that survival itself may just be the reward. I’d watch The Apprentice if it was anything like this. Salvage, with its suburban street violently quarantined by the army and secret military project gone awry borrowed heavily from George Romero and offered some mechanically effective scares right up until it revealed its monstrous antagonist at which point logic and tension went out the window.

Disappointingly, logic, tension and scares were three things missing from Italian horrormeister’s Dario Argento’s new film, Giallo. A shuffling serial killer is kidnapping and mutilating beautiful women and only Milan’s troubled, top cop Adrien Brody (we know he’s troubled coz he lives in the basement of the police station) can save her. While Giallo is ludicrous, it did give me a new appreciation of Brody’s acting talents. He definitely deserves the Oscar he got for The Pianist just for being able to deliver with a straight face some of the most ridiculous dialogue I’ve ever heard. Also borrowing from Romero, Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool is a sly Francophile reinvention of the zombie movie. When a deadly virus turns the respectable citizens of Ontario town Pontypool into a mob of violent psychopaths it’s up to talk radio host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) to try to save the day from the relative safety of his DJ booth.

This year’s clutch of international films were as diverse and eclectic as one’s come to expect of Edinburgh and while the last minute inclusion of Lars Von Trier’s controversial Antichrist smacked of audience baiting, it fit well in a programme that served up a satisfying mix of crowd pleasers and the elegantly uncomfortable. Essentially a two-hander, the grieving couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) at the heart of Antichrist retreat to an isolated cabin in the woods to get over the death of their infant son. Which mostly involves Gainsbourg demanding violent sex and masturbating joylessly in the woods while she slowly dissolves into madness. Lushly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, the first two thirds of the film are unnerving and claustrophobic, its vision of a hostile Nature a palpable third character in the film. Then a talking fox turns up, announces “Chaos reigns,” and the increasingly unhinged Gainsbourg starts raiding the tools in the woodshed… Overblown and hysterical, with scenes of genital mutilation and violence that wouldn’t be out of place in an Eli Roth movie, Antichrist is torture porn masquerading as a serious movie which ultimately fails because you just don’t care about the characters. You get the impression that Gainsbourg’s character was already as nutty as a cashew tree before her son’s death and Dafoe’s smug cognitive therapist richly deserves the two-by-four to the balls he receives.

Antichrist wasn’t the only film in this year’s programme where if you went down to the woods you’d be sure of a big surprise. In Fabrice Du Welz’s similarly themed Vinyan, an ex-pat couple (Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Beart) in Thailand, still mourning the son they lost in the Tsunami, take a terrifying voyage into the heart of darkness after Beart glimpses a child in a charity video of Burmese orphans. The video is grainy and indistinct but Beart is convinced it’s her missing son and before long she and Sewell are lost in the jungle at the mercy of Burmese pirates and menaced by a tribe of feral children. Hallucinatory and genuinely disturbing, with a climax that’s both shocking and satisfying, Vinyan is the film that Antichrist could’ve been.

Based on the life of legendary French bank robber Jacques Mesrine, Jean-Francois Richet’s double bill Mesrine: L’instinct de mort (Killer Instinct) and Mesrine: L’ennemi public no1 (Public Enemy No1) is a ferocious, adrenalin-fuelled ride through a criminal career that if it wasn’t true no-one would believe it. Featuring a charismatic, seductive performance from Vincent Cassel as Mesrine, the best way to enjoy these films is back to back. Aussie director Rowan Woods’ Fragments is a Short Cuts-style ensemble piece which follows the survivors of a mass shooting in an American diner while Denmark’s Little Soldier recycles the plot of Mona Lisa with a Gulf veteran returning to Copenhagen and slipping into a job chauffeuring a Nigerian call girl around for a jovial pimp. The pimp however is the soldier’s father and the soldier is a brittle young woman, haunted by her experiences. Stephen Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is a chilly episodic character study of a young New York escort girl (a standout performance by porn starlet Sasha Grey). Against a backdrop of the recent financial meltdown we follow Grey as she shops, dines, spends time with her clients, worries about a rival stealing her business and is interviewed by a journalist. All the while, the main topic, the only topic, of everyone’s conversation is how bad the markets are doing. It’s obvious that Soderbergh’s heavy-handed point is that Grey’s clients aren’t the only ones being screwed. Disappointingly, for a film about sex The Girlfriend Experience is damn unsexy.

If you’re looking for sexy though look no further than Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker; an adrenaline shot straight to the senses that makes war, and in particular, bomb disposal look damn sexy. From the intricate opening sequence where a US Army bomb disposal team’s leader is killed, the film grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Focusing on the team’s replacement chief, an excellent Jeremy Renner, an adrenaline-junkie who’s only alive when he faces death, and his relationship with the rest of his team (the cautious, seasoned veteran Anthony Mackie and the fatalistic rookie Brian Geraghty), The Hurt Locker is more interested in putting you in the shoes of men at war, examining their motivations and mindsets, rather than action set-pieces, CG effects or political grandstanding. Which isn’t to say that the action scenes aren’t stunning. Covering the last 30 days of the team’s tour of duty in Iraq, The Hurt Locker is a bruising experience, as viscerally thrilling and visually exciting as Bigelow’s previous films Point Break and Strange Days. Perhaps the first truly important film to come out of Gulf War Part 2, The Hurt Locker is a film that doesn’t offer easy answers or a pat resolution but it is a tense, thrilling ride.

With films like this, Moon and the excellent Crying With Laughter the prognosis for next year’s festival is pretty healthy. But please Lord, I’ll do anything, I’ll climb a mountain and sacrifice my firstborn, anything, just don’t allow Shane Meadows to submit a film to the 64th EIFF.

(As there's no Shane Meadows entry in the 2010 EIFF it looks like bad news for any progeny I spawn)

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