Saturday, 19 June 2010

Zombies, Space Cowboys and a blowjob that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth : The 2005 Edinburgh International Film Festival

Life is full of little ironies. That black fly in your Chardonnay. That death row pardon arriving two minutes too late. Rain on your wedding day. Dropped toast always landing jammy-side down on the carpet….

Ok, so these are all Alanis Morrissette song lyrics (apart from that last one about jammy toast which was a favourite anecdote of my high school Physics teacher Mr Mallon) but you get the idea. It’s ironic then that in a year when the Edinburgh International Film Festival celebrates the genius of British director Michael Powell with a comprehensive Retrospective, that the best thing you can say about the crop of British films in competition for the award that bears his name is that they are a triumph of mediocrity.

None of them are bad, none of them out-and-out suck (well maybe Stoned out-and-out sucks), none of them have me spewing vitriolic bile and venom at innocent passers-by. It’s just that….none of them are very good. With one very notable exception (the gruelling The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael) they’re safe, bland….boring and Powell was never that. Together with screenwriter and producer Emeric Pressburger, Powell crafted what are still the finest films ever to come out of this island; the fevered hallucinatory Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, surreal romantic fantasies like A Matter of Life And Death and the jolly, oddly dreamlike, ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’, the satirical celebration of the British officer class that was The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, the nerve-shredding tension of The Small Black Room. Visually ravishing, Powell’s films were as damn near close to beautiful as British cinema is ever likely to get and have inspired filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese and Bernardo Bertolucci but he was no mere cold, technical, clinician. Mystical and exotic, Powell’s films dared to hint at the darkness lurking within all of us, the unspoken desires that threaten to rule us, the chaos that can engulf us. But ultimately his films celebrate the human, his characters often decent, ordinary types caught up in events far bigger than them, quietly dignified, unheroic heroes whose greatest strengths, and often their salvation, lie not in cool rationalism but in abandoning themselves to the whims of the heart. While remarkably perverse considering the lacklustre British fare on offer elsewhere in the Festival, it’s to Artistic Director Shane Danielson’s credit that he’s given Edinburgh audiences the chance to see on the Big Screen what British Cinema used to look like.

What it looks like now however is unbearably smug and middle-aged. Or maybe that’s just Stoned, producer Stephen Woolley’s derivative directorial debut which gives us the life and death of Brian Jones, the Rolling Stone who sank like one in his own swimming pool. Keith Richards once said that troubled Jones was “the nicest bunch of guys you could meet” and the same could be said of the film which ‘borrows’ liberally (steals) from The Doors and The Servant to present Jones as a child-man whose friendship with his builder has fatal consequences. Shot like a pop video, Stoned is a middle-aged, middle class white man’s expensive wank-fantasy which ticks boxes rather than employ anything so complex as a decent script. Hot naked chicks shot in soft focus? Check. Soft-core sex and vanilla S&M? Check. Copious drug abuse by beautiful people while working class oiks looking on enviously? Check and Double-check. At one point while watching this hymn to pop’s most disposable prince I found myself idly thinking “What this film needs now is a hippy, dippy LSD trip to a soundtrack of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit….” Guess what turned up approximately 7 minutes later? Check.

While I know I saw Elijah Wood’s Hobbit turn Yobbit and discover the joys of ultra-violence in Lexi Alexander’s Green Street, I can’t help thinking how much more I would have enjoyed Richard E. Grant’s autobiographical rampant egotrip Wah Wah if Wood and his gang of droogs had turned up halfway in and battered seven shades out of Grant’s surrogate. But that didn’t happen. Did it? Without even realising it, this year’s Britflicks have merged in my mind into one glutinous, homogenised mass with only random moments bubbling to the surface. So I saw a heart-warming, life-affirming tale of plucky underdogs banding together in the face of adversity (Kinky Boots, On A Clear Day), violently reasserting their emasculated manhood (Green Street, The Business), uncovering a mystery (Guy X, Mirrormask), falling in love with the wrong people (Asylum, Song of Songs), kicking the shit out of some asylum seekers (Gypo) before finally facing the adult world older and wiser (Wah Wah). And it all happened in Swaziland.

Traditionally, and this year is no exception, the Edinburgh Film Festival has always been the very model of vibrant eclecticism with it’s heady mix of edgy, experimental fare and foreign art house, of low/no-budget gems rubbing shoulders alongside the best big-budget blockbusters Hollywood has to offer, groundbreaking documentaries that hold a mirror to the world we live in and Late Night Romps that showcase the best genre movies the maverick directors of the world have to offer. It’s serious appreciation of that breeding ground of tomorrow’s talent, the music video, in the past has introduced Edinburgh audiences to the likes of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry long before they’d ever had a meeting with Harvey Weinstein and over the years Edinburgh has tempted the most creative, exciting talents in cinema to come to the capital, engage with an audience and offer an insight into their work, playing host this year alone to talents as diverse as writer/director Paul Schrader, Buffy creator Joss Whedon (receiving the kind of reception usually reserved for Rock stars and George Clooney with one fan actually paying £210 to attend his Reel Life talk), horror maestro George A. Romero (who sports the biggest spectacles in the world), Scorsese’s editor (and the late Michael Powell’s wife) Thelma Schoonmaker and perhaps one of the most significant figures in American film, documentary king Albert Maysles. With his fine, cine-literate appreciation of the art of cinema and his geeky, fan-boy love of movies (how many other Artistic Director’s seem equally as excited at the prospect of George Romero’s 1st zombie flick in 20 years as they do at the return of Ingmar Bergman after a similar two decade break), Shane Danielson has crafted the finest programme of his tenure as Artistic Director and one of the best Festival’s in years.

As ever the Late Night Romps skipped the pubic hair-thin line of palatability with their graphic and often gruesome depictions of sex, violence, horror and more sex and violence. Previous Festivals have seen the championing of maverick directors like Japan’s Miike Takashi and South Korea’s Park Chan-wook whose blends of blistering, bone-crunching violence and slapstick comedy have delighted and dismayed audiences in equal measure and Hideo Nakata’s Ringu trilogy which has scared the Baby Jesus out of them. This year, South Korea again stepped up to the plate and gave us Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life, a rabid hyena of a revenge drama hiding behind the year’s most innocuous title. With it’s brutal, nihilistic violence and it’s increasingly demented protagonist A Bittersweet Life makes last year’s Old Boy look positively sedate as our gangster hero survives bone-crunching beatings, stabbings, shootings and premature burial to mete out vengeance on the boss who betrayed him. Eschewing the style and visual excesses of more familiar Hong Kong directors like John Woo and Ringo Lam, Derek Yee’s One Night In Mongkok gave us a claustrophic game of cat-and-mouse between a burnt-out cop and a sympathetic (if na├»ve) hitman played out on the mean streets of Hong Kong’s Mongkok district, the most densely populated area in the world. Downbeat and grimy, Yee’s gritty vision of Hong Kong captures both the threat and allure of the city, of any city, perfectly and could almost be a companion piece to France‘s 36 Quai Des Orfevres. Owing as much to Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo as it does to Michael Mann’s Heat, 36 Quai Des Orfevres was a hard as nails French thriller which played out the bitter rivalry between two cops (former friends turned deadly enemies) over a decade with tragic results. Written and directed by former cop Olivier Marchal, the film brought a distinctly Gallic flavour to it’s tale of corruption and revenge and offered us the dream pairing of Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu (the French De Niro and Pacino) as the two rivals.

Traditional horror fare of the spooky dead kid variety was on offer from the UK’s The Dark which saw Maria Bello’s American mom’s sanity slowly disintegrate in Wales as she searched for her missing daughter. Throwing in sinister sheep (I kid you not….), mass cult suicide, spooky ghost kids and Maurice Roeves doing a Welsh accent, The Dark’s unsettling atmosphere of slow-building dread was in sharp contrast to the hysterical desire to shock and offend that infused Bernard Rose‘s Snuff- Movie. A reclusive Machiavellian director (equal parts Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick) hires a bunch of actors to recreate the brutal Manson-style slaying of his wife, secretly broadcasting the results on the Internet as events spiral out of his control and history repeats itself. With it’s pointless and graphic nudity, bloody scenes of torture, murder and sexual violence finally culminating in the crucifixion of the film’s naked leading lady this film-within-a-film-within-a-film was like a small child exposing itself at a party; determined to shock you but ultimately harmless. Far more unsettling was Fruit Chan’s Hong Kong-set Dumplings which saw Miriam Yueng’s aging soap actress try to recapture her lost youth with the help of slutty chef Bai Ling’s extra special dim sum. Wickedly satirising the beauty industry and relations between Hong Kong and mainland China, Dumplings is a genuinely transgressive confection which satisfies and horrifies in equal measure. Just don’t ask what’s in Bai Ling’s dumplings….

Among the documentaries on offer were Albert Maysles acclaimed Salesman, one of the most influential documentaries ever made with it’s fly-on-the-wall style and it’s eschewing of narrative voiceover in favour of just following the protagonists (4 far from godly Bible salesman), Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (nutty eco-activist loves bears a little too much, bears eat him), the almost surreal Gunner Palace which tracked the tour of duty of a group US soldiers occupying one of Saddam Hussein’s pleasure palaces and the excellent Our Brand Is Crisis which documented the involvement of a firm of US spin doctors in the ill-fated 2002 Bolivian election and had perhaps the funniest line of the Festival as fast-talking James Carville (the man who got Clinton elected. Twice) explains that “running a campaign is a lot like intercourse. You don’t have a lotta say in when you peak.”

Perhaps the best documentary though was Paul Provenza’s The Aristocrats which in essence asked around 100 comedians to tell the world’s dirtiest joke their way, proving that the punchline’s not important, it’s the journey to it that counts and forcing me to recall (unwillingly) Irish comedian Frank Carson’s “It’s the way I tell them” catchphrase. Pant-wettingly funny and occasionally downright offensive, The Aristocrats is not a film for those of a timid disposition but like all the best comedy it is refreshingly politically incorrect and downright transgressive.

As usual the Festival played host to both the boldest and most innovative new voices in World Cinema and more established, mature voices. Danish thriller Murk (Danish? Thriller? Surely some mistake…) saw a journalist investigate the suicide (or is it murder?) of his disabled sister and the complicity of her new husband who’s moved to a new town and become engaged to a disabled woman…. The dreamlike eccentricity of the USA’s Police Beat was a gentle, understated study of an immigrant policeman’s sexual jealousy. Australia’s The Magician was a low-budget (just $2000) witty retread of Man Bites Dog with a chatty hitman commissioning the student filmmaker next-door to document his crimes while the mounting paranoia of The Moustache (Frenchman shaves off his moustache, no-one notices, the fabric of existence unravels….) and the unlikely romance at the heart of Les Yeux Clairs presented two very different visions of French life.

Two of the Seventies most important American writer/directors, Paul Schrader and James Toback, came to Edinburgh bearing very different films. After having his film shelved by the studio, Schrader was finally able to present his Exorcist prequel Dominion to a paying audience. A thoughtful, mature meditation on the nature of faith, guilt and evil in a seemingly godless world, Dominion proved ultimately to be too damned smart for the producers who wanted projectile vomiting and CGI jackals. Idiots. While Toback may have had to cancel his appearance at the Festival at the 11th hour, his When Will I Be Loved, boasted a brave, raw performance from Scream star Neve Campbell, and drew the audience in with it’s meandering, anecdotal style before revealing itself to be a rather chilly portrait of the conflict between the sexes.

Fans of cult cinema were well served by the return of George A. Romero and the debut of Joss Whedon. Whedon, creator of TV’s Buffy and Angel, served up the World Premiere of Serenity, a slice of kick-ass sci-fi hokum based on his ill-fated TV series Firefly. Essentially a Western set in the final frontier of space, Serenity pitches it’s rag-tag heroes against cannibal mutants and a tyrannical government in a battle for the future of Mankind. Learning from the mistakes of other big-budget TV spin-offs that required a knowledge of and affection for the show, Whedon’s created an adrenalin-fuelled stand-alone work that satisfies both existing fans and those new to his Universe, though there were gasps and tears among the devotees in the audience as beloved characters were killed off. Completely unfamiliar with the TV series, I loved the movie so much I ordered the series from Amazon that night. All I need now is 14 straight hours to watch it.

After years wandering in the wilderness of development hell George A. Romero returned with his new zombie movie Land of the Dead. With it’s gated community of privileged haves, it’s huddled mass of have-nots and the constant threat of attack (by zombies not terrorists) the city under siege in Romero’s film is Fortress America right down to Dennis Hopper’s sharp-suited Republican Party Reptile politician spitting soundbites like “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” and “Zombies - they creep me out”. And the film is full of brain-eating zombies. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

The most controversial films of the Festival, Mexico’s Battle in Heaven and the UK’s The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael, both made use of non-professional performers in scenes that would have made the most committed Method actor question their career choices. The best of the UK films on offer, The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael is impossible to like but also impossible to ignore as it charts a nice middle class boy’s bored drift into recreational drug use, gang rape and murder. While the protagonist obviously has a few problems (he masturbates over De Sade for God‘s sake), I think it’s simplistic to suggest that a few pills, a couple of joints and some underage drinking are really going to unleash the blank-eyed rape-happy sociopath lurking at the centre of this film. But whatever deficiencies 1st time director Thomas Clay’s brutal vision of growing up on the South Coast has in terms of script and performance, his command of the visuals is undisputable. In one of the film’s less shocking sequences our bored drug-addled hero watches Tony Blair drum up support for the war in Iraq while his friends rape a girl in the next room, turning up the volume to drown out her anguished screams. The scene is both horrifying and overtly political and Clay’s restless camera making us complicit in both crimes.

Riding the wave of controversy it generated at Cannes, Battle in Heaven on the other hand is just criminally bad. Opening and closing with a scene of explicit fellatio that would made me want to gag (boom, boom) and featuring explicit sexual content and graphic violence, I’m fairly sure I nodded off for about 10 minutes in the middle of this tale of a chauffeur’s guilt over a child kidnapping gone wrong. I’m all for using non-professional actors; in the hands of a great director like Bresson for example, the untutored performance can get closer to the truth than that of a more nuanced trained actor. However I spent most of Battle in Heaven trying to figure out if the blank-eyed protagonists were genuinely retarded or had just been given absolutely no direction.

I’m still not sure.

Battle in Heaven is a nasty, sleazy little film which exploits both it’s actors and, more importantly, it’s audience. And films this controversial and explicit just should not be so soporific. It’s ironic then that the film was one of the big hits of the Festival. Thankfully it’s the roller coaster ride of Serenity that’s still playing in my head

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