Saturday, 19 June 2010

Paranoia, Kick-Ass Moves and Burgers. Lots of Burgers! The 58th Edinburgh International Film Festival

I have a guilty secret. I am 30 years of age, have no criminal record (at least not one that restricts foreign travel) and, after 3 years of Film School (and several more sitting on my backside watching movies), I consider myself an intelligent, cine-literate, individual. And yet….I enjoy heckling films.

Smug, smart-alecky little comments in the dark. Anyone who’s ever sat in a darkened cinema, wishing there were fewer people to climb over between them and the exit, and wailed aloud or read Joe Queenan’s Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler will recognise the perverse joy and freedom heckling gives me. Because sometimes, no matter how carefully you choose your film, sometimes, you just find yourself watching a dog. And when that happens you have a choice to make. You can be an adult and walk out. You can sit there and suffer through until the end (usually the best option if you’re on a date). Or, if you love cinema and your time is just too precious to waste on a bad film, you can fight back. I fight back. I heckle.

I don’t heckle just any film though. Being an intelligent, cine-literate smart-aleck, I only heckle art films. ART in capital letters films. After all, anybody can heckle a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick. I heckle the pretentious, the portentous, the self-indulgent, the self-important. Which brings me to this year’s EIFF and Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell.

Depending on who you listen to Catherine Breillat is either a courageous libertine, justifiably notorious for 1999’s Romance with it’s frank, explicit depiction of a woman’s search for sexual fulfillment or she’s a pornographer who courts controversy by livening up her ennui-laden films with the sort of hard-core sex scenes more suited to mail-order video and best watched in the privacy of your own home with some animal fat. And the curtains drawn.

Her latest film Anatomy of Hell, based on her own novel Pornocratie, is another challenging voyage (or wallow) in the limits of sexual discovery. When a young woman’s attempted suicide in the toilet of a Paris gay bar is thwarted, she embarks on a perverse masturbatory relationship with her saviour. Nothing of any real import happens but it does provide several golden heckling opportunities. Like when the heroine removes her soiled tampon, dips it in a glass of water and gives it to the hero to drink (prompting me to share with the audience a half-remembered playground joke about teabags for vampires) or when overcome with disgust and desire the hero inserts the handle of a garden fork into the sleeping heroine’s vagina (a gardening tip I’m glad Alan Titschmarsh never performed on Charlie Dimmock during Ground Force). AND SHE DOESN”T WAKE UP. With scenes like these, Anatomy of Hell was the funniest film I saw during the Festival. Shame it didn’t realise it.

Laughs were thin on the ground in Edinburgh this summer, with two big, fat, dark shadows hanging over this year’s Film Festival programme. Despite not having a film on show, Michael Moore’s corpulent shadow loomed stylistically in every frame of this year’s most over-rated film, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, in which a crusading young American film-maker risked his life by eating every meal only at McDonalds every day for a month. By the end of the month Spurlock’s doctors were begging him to quit his new diet, his girlfriend was looking tetchy and Spurlock seemed genuinely surprised that after only a month of cramming double portions of junk food into his big fat gob, his blood pressure had gone through the roof, his bowels had become sluggish, he was clinically obese and had become impotent (possibly why his girlfriend was tetchy). Well, like, Doh! Anyone who needs a 90 minute documentary to tell them that eating junk food morning, noon and night, might not be such a hot idea deserves the bitch tits and impotence the burgers will give them. And I should know; I spent years on my backside watching films.

The other dark shadow over this year’s Festival was the one cast by 9/11, a direct or indirect influence on some of the more thought-provoking and diverse films, among them Ken Loach’s Glasgow romance Ae Fond Kiss, Antonia Bird’s chilling Hamburg Cell, Kenny Glenaan’s Yasmin and Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room. The best of these was Noujaim’s documentary Control Room which followed the fortune’s of the Arab news channel Al Jazeera throughout the recent Gulf War.

Universally denounced by the Coalition forces, Al Jazeera we learn, contrary to being a mouthpiece for Osama Bin Laden, is in fact passionately pro-democracy and has been condemned by virtually every Arab state, including Iraq, for it’s repeated calls for democratic reform throughout the Arab world. But it’s commitment to showing the effects of the US-led war to topple Sadaam eventually leads to the bombing of the station’s Baghdad office by US planes in “self-defence” resulting in the death of a reporter and forcing the network to pull out of Iraq, allowing the US to sanitise and bury stories. Funny, intelligent and remarkably even-handed, Control Room cuts through the spin of Operation Shock and Awe to show us the human side of the conflict, the side that our masters don’t want us to see. It’s to Noujaim’s credit that she allow’s her film to speak for itself rather than force her own agenda upon the audience. Expect the Bush Administration to denounce it just as soon as they’ve gotten rid of that troublesome Moore fella.

Despite the obvious disappontments of a lacklustre Opening Film, Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (Che Guevara’s beautifully shot but ultimately vapid and sexless early years) and a non-existant Closing Film, Wong Kar-wai’s long-awaited 2046 (which was pulled at the last minute in order to allow the director to take the film back into the edit room and masturbate over it some more), this year’s Festival gave us an intelligent, eclectic mix of films from around the world, with home-grown British films well represented. Eleanor Yule’s Blinded was a Gothic Scots take on The Postman Always Rings Twice with a stand-out performance of seething malice by Peter Mullan as the blind misogynist who hires a Danish drifter to work on his farm and is more than a little annoyed when his pretty, young abused wife (Jodhi May on fragile, astonishing form) sees her chance of escape. Shane Meadows gave us Dead Man’s Shoes a dark Midlands-set revenge thriller and Richard Eyre gave us Stage Beauty, a witty, intelligent film that will forever be cursed by comparison to the inferior Shakespeare in Love.

It wasn’t all quality on the British front though as Richard Jobson unveiled his new film The Purifiers. I say new, but anyone who’s ever seen The Warriors has seen The Purifiers. They just saw a superior version. The plot revolves around a multi-racial Glasgow gang of pretty people (and the ugly hobbit from The Lord Of The Rings) trying to get back to their turf after refusing to join megalomaniac Nazi politician Kevin McKidd in his bid to take over the city. Really. McKidd is filmed like he’s in a Franz Ferdinand video and rather than give a performance is content to just give us an extended impersonation of director Jobson. In the film’s press notes Jobson admits that he was inspired to make the film by his son who wanted to see a film with “Lots of people beating each other up, chases on motorbikes – and some girls with big boobs.” Shame Jobson Jr didn’t ask for a good script and some decent performances as well but he’s only young. That said, the Oriental girl’s boobs were nice. Don’t ask me how it ended as I got bored and walked out in time to see Pearls and Pigs, a Finnish black comedy about Karaoke, some small-time crooks, their shy 10 year old sister (who just happens to have the voice of an angel) and a TV kids talent show with a 20 grand prize.

After the idiocy of The Purifiers, Zhang Yimou’s stunning martial arts epic Hero was a welcome relief. Set in the distant past, it opens with a nameless hero being granted an audience with a paranoid king who wishes to know how the hero rid the kingdom of three fearsome assassins who had each sworn to kill the king. But as the hero tells his tale, the king starts to suspect the hero may have a darker agenda of his own…. The film owes as much to Rashomon with it’s complex narrative structure and emphasis on the unreliability of it’s narrator as it does to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon whose lyrical fight scenes and gorgeous mise-en-scene it echoes. The film is a feast of colour and spectacle but it’s central romance between assassins Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung is heart-breaking and Jet Li’s nameless charismatic hero (as playful in his storytelling as in his numerous martial arts scenes) is engaging. It is fitting that his final act of self-sacrifice gives birth to an empire whose mark the world still bears.

The overwhelming atmosphere of this year’s programme though, was one of paranoia, doubt and fear. If the rest of the world wasn’t out to get you as in Belgium’s Calvaire or Korea’s Old Boy, then it was the face looking back at you in the mirror. Marc Evans followed up his wonderfully nasty chiller My Little Eye with Trauma, a study of grief, psychosis and stalking made all the more unsettling for the performance of housewive’s choice and TV’s Mr Darcy, Colin Firth, as the fracturing personality at the film’s heart. Just as disturbing was an emaciated Christian Bale, who lost 63 pounds for his title role in The Machinist. Bale is magnetic as the obssessed, paranoid insomniac whose guilt is literally consuming him and his eventual epiphany is a shattering experience. And Morgan Spurlock really ought to get some diet tips from him.

The secret lurking at the dark heart of Old Boy, Park Chan-wook’s follow-up to 2002’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is equally shattering but our journey to it is a lot more fun. In a set-up that screams high-concept Hollywood remake, we watch as an anonymous wage slave is kidnapped, framed for murder and held in Terry Waite-style isolation for 15 years before being released without explanation. His demented search for the reason behind his imprisonment, and his attempt to exact retribution, leads to bone-crunching violence, some decidedly amateur dental work and a revelation that even if you see it coming, still shocks. Calvaire on the other hand is just repellant. Playing like an episode of The League of Gentlemen (with the laughs substituted with buggery, bestiality, torture, crucifixion, cross-dressing and some more buggery), I was too afraid to heckle this film. After all, I could have been sitting next to a Belgian. And Belgium is the country that gave us serial child abuser and killer Marc Dutroux. Having seen this film, I’m not surprised.

The most satisfying film for me though wasHungarian writer/director Nimrod Antal’s debut film, Kontroll, a stylish, hyper-kinetic, fluorescent and neon-soaked ride through the Budapest subway system, with not a frame of natural light in the entire movie, Kontroll juggles the antics of a group of misfit ticket inspectors, their conflict with a rival group of inspectors, the hunt for a hooded serial killer shoving unwary travellers under trains and the troubled hero’s tentative romance with a fare-dodging girl dressed as a bear. Dark, hypnotic and shot through with a humour that’s blacker than a Budapest tunnel, Kontroll works both as a convential thriller and, on a deeper level, as a metaphysical battle between good and evil for possession of a man’s soul with the healing power of love as the redemptive force that tips the balance. The most successful Hungarian film of last year, Kontroll’s remake rights have already been snapped up by Hollywood but it’s hard to believe Jerry Bruckheimer and co. could equal the breathless intensity of Kontroll’s subterranean adventure. Do yourself a favour, see it before they remake it.

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