Saturday, 30 June 2012

Requisite blog photo: Birthday drift

Clearly this franchise needs yet another ridiculous new character. (And yes, today is my birthday. Do I look too old to be watching a movie like this?)

EIFF 11: Waiting for that call

Well, I finally made it home last night, 30 hours after I set off on my train journey back to London. A bit mind-boggling really, especially since I could have travelled to Sydney more quickly. But I'm happy to be home, and I'm following the festival from afar now. For example, I know who has won the awards (more on that tomorrow), and also that John Hillcoat's Lawless was the surprise film last night. On the other hand, I missed the press screening of Brave, so will have to catch up on that later.

Shadow Dancer
dir James Marsh; with Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen 12/UK ****
Slow and steady, this will appeal to filmgoers who like to get involved in a complex, intelligent story that refuses to follow the rules of more bombastic thrillers. And it rewards patience with a moving story about the collision of family and political values... FULL REVIEW

Dragon (Wu Xia)
dir Peter Ho-sun Chan; with Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro 11/Chn ****
A fascinating combination of wuxia action and police procedural, this riveting, well-made film holds our attention right from the start, as we witness a surprise attack on a small-town shop, during which a mild-mannered family man Jin-xi (Yen) fends off two ruthless killers. Enter detective Xu (Kaneshiro), who pieces together the fight and realises there's something fishy going on. Clearly Jin-xi is actually a master fighter, which means he's not who he says he is. Indeed, the story hinges on Jin-xi's past coming back to haunt him with a vengeance. And it's in the quiet drama that the film really works best. The action scenes are inventively choreographed, but are shot in close-up with far too heavy editing, so we can never quite see the proper context. So it's a good thing that the interpersonal drama, including a fascinating journey for both of these central characters, is so engaging. And moving, too.

Sexual Cronicles of a French Family
dir Jean-Marc Barr, Pascal Arnold; with Mathias Melloul, Valeria Maes 12/Fr ***.
There's a slightly uneven tone to this ambitious drama, which probes under the surface of a French family that has never spoken to each other about sex, even though they talk about everything else. So not much different from most Western families, then. But everything changes when Mum (Maes) decides it's time to start talking, and invasively starts asking questions of her two sons, daughter, husband and father-in-law, all of whom seem a bit relieved to be talking about these things for a change. The film also shows all of them engaged in sex with their partners, which kind of makes it feel like a (soft) porn movie, although each encounter is so detailed and realistic that it's clearly not meant only to titillate. And in the end, the film does have some great things to say about the dangers of repression, and the joy of accepting all of your humanity.

¡Vivan las Antipodas!
dir Victor Kossakovsky; with Abel Perez, Jack Thompson 11/Ger ****
Observing human life and behaviour from a fascinating perspective, filmmaker Kossakovsky takes on four sets of antipodes, places on opposite points of the planet: Russia-Chile, China-Argentina, Botswana-Hawaii and New Zealand-Spain. The imagery is simply stunning, as the cameras capture the colours and flavours of life in these places, including people going about their daily routines, flora and faun, weather and geography. There's an expanse of water in every one of these places, which is notable because most of us have antipodes that are in the middle of an ocean. And every sequence also features a pet dog. In addition to exploring the commonalities between all of these disparate people, these scenes also show some key differences in the way our lives have adapted to various settings and weather patterns. But best of all is the film's intimate, emotional tone, which holds us in rapt attention.

Friday, 29 June 2012

EIFF 10: Get me out of here

Well, a freak catastrophic storm cut off Scotland from England yesterday just as my train pulled out of Edinburgh. We got as far as Berwick-upon-Tweed and after an hour or so there (with absolutely no information announced by the East Coast line), we were brought back to Edinburgh and told to fend for ourselves until the line was reopened, which might be three days. So I'm back here, trying to find a train to London, probably down the West Coast line, which was reopened this morning, apparently. Not a great day! I really should have gone in for this morning's press screening of the closing film Brave, but I've been working on getting home. Anyway, the festival carries on regardless...

dir Gabe Torres; with Stephen Dorff, Chyler Leigh 12/US ***
Fans of trapped-in-a-box movies (see also Ryan Reynolds in Buried) will race to see this thriller, which centres on Dorff in a glass box in the boot of a car while all manner of chaos goes on around him. The kidnappers who put him there want some vital information, but they clearly have too much time and money on their hands as they indulge in a range of stress-inducing physical and mental torture set pieces. Knowing from the start that Dorff is our tough-guy hero, we are sure he won't crack under even the worst pressure, and he's lucky to have a CB radio, mobile phone and torch in there with him. So there isn't much suspense in the film, really, but it's very well shot, Dorff is very watchable (which is important since he's the only one on-screen) and the premise is nicely bewildering, keeping us guessing about what's going to happen next. While the final series of events is more than a little corny, at least here's a sting in the tail.

God Bless America
dir Bobcat Goldthwait; with Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr 12/US ****
After World's Greatest Dad, Goldthwait is back with another pitch-black comedy that's both hilarious and deeply disturbing. Like Kevin Smith's blistering Red State, this film scythes through the mindless degradation of the American media... FULL REVIEW

First Position
dir Bess Kargman; with Aran Bell, Michaela Deprince 11/US ****
This Spellbound-style doc follows a handful of hopeful dancers to a youth competition where their future will be decided. With jobs and scholarships on offer, the stakes are very high for these teens and pre-teens, and the filmmakers follow them through their training routines and home lives. Each of them has a different story - Bell is in a military family that moves all over the world, Deprince is an orphan from Sierra Leone adopted by an American couple - and as the competition approaches we become extremely invested in them, like nervous parents waiting in the wings. One of the most compelling dancers is 16-year-old Joan Sebastian Zamora from Colombia, who dreams big and has the talent to back it up. Watching him and the others blossom under the pressure is thoroughly engaging.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

EIFF 9: Sunshine or rain

Well I'm heading back to London today, missing the last few days of the festival here in Edinburgh. But yesterday was pretty full-on, with four feature films, eight shorts and two parties going late into the night. So I was pretty exhausted by the time I walked home in the rain at 1.30 am! Today I've just had two screenings before heading to the station for the train to London. I'll carry on blogging until Sunday.

California Solo
dir Marshall Lewy; with Robert Carlyle, Alexia Rasmussen 12/US ****
It's not easy to tell a powerfully emotional story without resorting to soppy sentiment, but this thoughtful drama manages to get the balance just right, thanks to sensitive writing and a terrific performance from Carlyle. He plays a Scot who has lived in California for decades, working quietly on a farm after his big-time rock band dissolved. But his tranquility is about to be shaken by a drunk-driving charge, which brings to light problems with his immigration status. Carlyle is terrific as the guy who feels like he can't go home again, due to guilt and regret over a past he has never confronted. But instead of boiling over into melodrama, writer-director Lewy keeps things earthy and real as the story heads to a conclusion we don't quite expect. A gentle gem.

Future My Love
dir Maja Borg; with Jacque Fresco, Nadya Cazan 12/Swe ****
Swedish filmmaker Borg gets a little carried away with her own artistry in this mash-up of documentary, film essay and visual poem, which explores the question of why humanity hasn't sorted out our problems even with enough information and technology at our disposal. Borg combines music, historical footage and an elusive black and white parallel story to explore this theme. At the centre is an extended interview with genius futurist Fresco, who explains the technocracy movement of the 1930s, a realistic plan to wipe out hunger, poverty and unemployment. And why this hasn't happened is simple: greed. The rich aren't willing to abandon a system that is no longer working if I means they can't accumulate as much private wealth as they want. Which basically makes this one of those beautifully made films that clearly explain what's going on but leaves us with no hope for a solution. Well not in our lifetimes, at least.

dir Ti West, Joe Swanberg, et al; with Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes 12/US ***
Anthology meets found-footage horror in this crowd-pleasing collection of video-based shorts, each of which hinges on a terrifying twist. As with most of these kinds of collections, the results are hit and miss, but there's something to enjoy in each segment, including the framing story of a group of thugs searching for a videotape in a very dark and creepy house. The strongest story centres on a married couple taking a holiday to the Grand Canyon while being stalked by a sinister intruder. But even in this segment, the logic of the format is broken as we see things no one would ever film as part of a holiday video. Other infractions include flashbacks and gimmicky effects, but there's plenty of gore, nudity and clever visual inventiveness to keep us entertained.

Exit Elena
dir Nathan Silver; with Kia Davis, Cindy Silver 12/US ***.
This low-key improv-style comedy is so wilfully quirky that we keep expecting Lena Dunham to appear in the next scene. Elena (Davis) is a nurse assistant who takes a live-in job with a seriously dysfunctional family that simply won't let her just get on with looking after Grandma, intrusively trying to get her to become part of the family. This plays out with one awkwardly hilarious scene after another, as Elena tries in vain to maintain her privacy, then realises she has to let them into her life if she wants to survive. The story is very clever, and the performances are all so realistic that it's often a bit freaky to watch (Silver is particularly hilarious as the pushy mum). But the film's lo-fi production values and meandering style may put off some viewers.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

EIFF 8: Staring at the sea

Straight from Cannes, the anthology film 7 Days in Havana beings the EIFF back to Cuba again, with segments from a series of top directors. And the Latino seaside theme continues in Chile's The Lifeguard - both films are covered below, along with the world premiere of Peter Strickland's new movie. Last night was the festial's elite party in Edinburgh Castle, to which mere mortal journalists aren't invited. I haven't heard anything about how it went, but it was nice to have a free evening since there are two parties tonight: a tango-themed concert for Future My Love and a later event for the anthology film The Fourth Dimention.

7 Days in Havana
dir Pablo Trapero, Benicio Del Toro, et al; with John Hutcherson, Emir Kusturica 12/Sp ***
There's plenty of colour and culture in this anthology, which could have been titled La Habana Te Amo, to match the similarly uneven Paris Je T'Aime and New York I Love You. It has moments of artistic inventiveness, but barely breaks the surface... FULL REVIEW

Berberian Sound Studio
dir Peter Strickland; with Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco 12/UK ****
Clever filmmaker Strickland (Katalin Varga) aims this film right at movie geeks, mixing comedy, drama and horror to tell the story of a tweedy British sound designer (Jones) who travels to a notorious Italian studio to mix the audio for a grisly 1970s schlock movie. The director insists that this is a serious historical drama, but the voice actors and sound artists all recognise it as a trashy romp about demonic witches. Intriguingly, Strickland only shows us the film within a film's title sequence, evoking the rest of it through a wonderfully detailed sound mix as we see how the audio track is assembled. This is often wickedly hilarious, not to mention an engaging look at analog sound assembly. Then things start to twist and turn, as the gruesome movie starts to merge with real life. Stunningly visual, the film is utterly mesmerising. Well, right up to the slightly unsatisfying coda.

The Lifeguard
dir Maite Alberdi; with Mauricio Rodriguez, Jean Pierre Palacios 11/Chl ****
From Chile, this sundrenched, sand-blown film chronicles a few days in the life of Mauricio, a lifeguard on a busy beach that has a fierce undercurrent. His philosophy is that preventing someone from getting into trouble is better than swimming to their rescue, so he uses his whistle liberally while never going into the water. This puts him at odds with Jean Pierre, the guard the next tower, who seems to do nothing all day long, waiting for someone to get into trouble. That's pretty much the plot of this film, which just follows Mauricio's interactions, including people asking stupid questions, trying to flout the rules, gossiping about each other and tormenting him about his dreadlocks. What makes it compelling viewing is the astounding cinematography, editing and sound mixing, which skilfully and artfully capture the tiniest details. And this includes getting far beneath Mauricio's skin.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

EIFF 7: Into the woods

Monday was a busy day here at the EIFF, with four movies plus interviews with two sets of actors. First I spoke with rising stars Cristian Cooke and Harry McEntire about their film Unconditional, and then I interviewed Eva Birthistle, Carlos Acosta and Christopher Simpson (plus director John Roberts and producer Jonathan Rae) from Day of the Flowers. The latter had its world premiere here last night, followed by a Cuban-themed party at The Caves. Meanwhile it's yet another sunny day in Edinburgh - I've only used my umbrella once in the past week...

Home for the Weekend
dir Hans-Christian Schmid; with Lars Eidinger, Corinna Harfouch 12/Ger ****
When a family reunites for a weekend, everyone is hiding a secret, trying to protect their mentally unstable mother (Harfouch), who is feeling great and has decided to go off her meds. And for her husband, their two sons and their partners, there will be serious ground-shifting consequences. Schmid directs this with an easy touch that never feels too heavy even though the themes are rather intense. Each character is going through some sort of major transition, and it doesn't go as expected for any of them. Along the way, the cast's fine performances and Schmid's stylish direction reveal all kinds of details, most notably in the interaction between these family members. They fully recognise each others' flaws, but love each other anyway.

Life Just Is
dir Alex Barrett; with Paul Nicholls, Jayne Wisener 12/UK **.
Filmmaker Barrett ambitiously tackles some enormous themes in this very low-budget debut. We may be distracted by the simplistic sets and inexperienced writing and acting, but if we pay attention, there's plenty going on to engage us as a group of five London friends in their mid-20s grapple with their mortality, faith and purpose. Each is a specific type of person, which makes their close friendship a little unlikely, but the core question is a strong one: when do we have to stop looking to the future for our identity and realise that we are already who we are? Yes, this means that the film is packed with conversation, often extremely awkward and strained. And while Barrett may shy away from gritty reality and the potent force of sexuality, he at least gets us thing about things in ways few films ever do.

Sun Don't Shine
dir Amy Seimetz; with Kate Lynn Shell, Kentucker Audley 12/US ***
With a fiercely inventive experimental style, Seimetz tells a story of two young lovers on the run across sun-bleached Florida. Soaked in sweat, this isn't the likeliest couple: Crystal (Shell) is a purely emotional woman who reacts wildly to everything that happens, while Leo (Audley) is rational to the point that we wonder if he really cares for her at all. The reason for their frantic road trip are a bit murky, but there's a gun in the glovebox and a body in the boot, and Crystal is certainly not happy that they're visiting Leo's ex along the way to get an alibi. Seimetz shoots this in grainy, blinding light, with sparse, softly spoken dialog and vivid physicality that lets the actors create memorable archetypes who clash so regularly that we know this can't possibly end well for them. But their odyssey is compelling to watch, especially since it's probably impossible not to take sides in every argument.

dir Wojclech Smarzowski; with Marcin Dorocinski, Agata Kulesza 11/Pol ****
There's a beautifully affirming story lurking inside this brutal, grim movie set at the end of WWII, when the fate of Poland's German-speaking Masurian region hung in the balance. At the centre is ex-soldier Tadek (Dorocinski), who decides to stay and help shattered Masurian widow Rose (Kulesza) on her pillaged farm. After the brutality of the Soviet army, Rose is now being persecuted by the Poles, and Tadek is drawn into her struggle, which is often hideously violent. Shot in near monochrome, the film looks almost as bleak as Rose's life, which seems to go from one awful event to something even worse, engulfing Tadek and her neighbours. It's pretty relentless, and the glimmers of happiness along the way only make the next horror that much worse. But at its centre this finely crafted and acted film has a real humanity to it.

Monday, 25 June 2012

EIFF 6: Watching for sharks

The Edinburgh Film Festival is usually drenched in rain, although this year there have only been a couple of proper showers. But the movies have been packed with seaside stories, perhaps because in these austere times the ocean is a rather spectacular, and cheap, visual effect! Or maybe it reflects the spectre of global warming, which has also been mentioned on-screen in festival films this year, often in a joking way. Anyway, two of the films below are set on islands (the photo above is from the Chilean drama The Lifeguard, which I'm seeing later in the week).

Day of the Flowers
dir John Roberts; with Eva Birthistle, Carlos Acosta 12/UK ***
A solid cast and picturesque locations make this film thoroughly watchable even as the screenplay grows contrived. It follows two estranged sisters (Birthistle and Charity Wakefield) who travel from Glasgow to Cuba with a friend (the superb Bryan Dick) to deliver their father's ashes to the spot where their parents fell in love. But if course nothing goes to plan as they travel across country, having a variety of encounters along the way. Intriguingly, the two sisters' disparate personalities provide the film with a some clever twists. And even if the two Cuban men they encounter (Acosta and Christopher Simpson) simplistically encapsulate all of the culture's good and bad elements, they're very well played and the actors both have strong chemistry with Birthistle. In the end, the plot resolutely refuses to hold water, but there's enough resonance to keep us emotionally involved.

dir Jon Wright; with Richard Coyle, Ruth Bradley 12/UK ****
A riotous collision of a British rural comedy and a freaky monster movie, this hilariously inventive Northern Irish film isn't perhaps what you expect to see at a festival, but it's a welcome respite from indie/foreign navel-gazing gloom. In a nutshell, alien squid-like beasts are terrorising a tiny Irish island community, where two cops (Coyle and Bradley) team up with a scientist (Russell Tovey) and a few lively locals to fend them off. The film gleefully plays with the genres, populating the film with riotously funny characters and situations that keep us both laughing and cringing from the screen. Indeed, some of this is startlingly scary, even though director Wright never stops poking fun at the situation. It's also cleverly played by actors who only rarely drift into goofy slapstick mode, against a seriously stunning landscape and tweaked with some inventive effects. But best of all is the way the film continues to develop the relationships right into the chaotic final act.

One 2 One
dir Mania Akbari; with Neda Amiri, Payam Dehkordi 11/Irn ***
This mannered experimental film from Iran explores the collapse of a relationship through a variety of isolated scenes, each shot in long takes that are centred closely on the faces of the people involved. These encounters take place in waiting areas, prison meeting rooms, on public transport, in a psychologist's office and at a fortune teller, and through conversations and voiceovers we begin to piece together the story of a love triangle in a society in which a woman's beauty is her most valuable asset, but men play all the cards. The harrowing events that drive the plot are all off-screen, but we relive them in the faces of the actors and the shifting layers of trust between the characters. It's pretty powerful stuff, even if the filmmaking style keeps us at arm's length, unable to emotionally identify with the characters. But it's an ambitious way to tell a story from a variety of perspectives, letting the nuances of modern-day Iranian culture come out in ways that are provocative and a bit chilling.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

EIFF 5: Flower power

The EIFF is a rare festival that embraces animated films - it's closing with Pixar's Brave this year - and the programmers have also managed to hold up the release of Dr Seuss' The Lorax in Britain so it can premiere here first. Meanwhile, rainy, grey weather in Edinburgh have sent audiences into cinemas, where they've had a chance to explore films that are far more interesting than the blockbusters showing everywhere else. And festival delegates are a bit tender after last night's high-spirited ceilidh, which was attended by jurors Elliott Gould and Jim Broadbent and featured haggis, fresh Lochfyne oysters, neeps and tatties, whisky and some hilarious moves on the dance floor by delegates struggling to remember the steps.

The Lorax
dir Chris Renaud; voices Danny DeVito, Ed Helms 12/UK **
Dr Seuss' eco-fable is transformed into a raucous adventure comedy in this colourful animated feature. And it's a little embarrassing really. Not only has the story been padded out with lame jokes and unnecessary side plots, but the film's pacing is all over the place, leaving both kids and their parents bored... FULL REVIEW

dir Bryn Higgins; with Christian Cooke, Harry McEntire 12/UK ****
With a break-out performance from rising star McEntire, this engaging but increasingly creepy British drama really gets under the skin as it explores issues of attraction and identity in some pretty challenging ways. In Newcastle, 17-year-old twins Kristen and Harry (Melanie Hill and McEntire) both fall for the charming fast-talker Liam (Cooke), and when Liam latches onto Owen, all three find themselves in a mind-bending situation. The characters are grappling with power, sexuality, gender and desire in startlingly complex ways that get under our skin. Some of the scripting is a bit pushy, and it kind of wallows in Owen's struggle to decide what he wants, but the naturalistic, internalised performances bring it to life, especially as events twist in unexpected directions.

Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal
dir Boris Rodriguez; with Thure Lindhardt, Dylan Smith 11/Can ***.
Only the black senses of humour of both Denmark and Canada could have produced a film like this one, which is so deranged that we feel a bit guilty about laughing at it. The plot is very silly: young, famed painter Lars (Lindhardt) moves to rural Canada to escape the pressure of artists' block. Working in a struggling art college, he's asked to take care of the gentle giant Eddie (Smith), whose nocturnal activities spark Lars' creative juices in increasingly grisly ways. Moral messiness aside, the film is gleefully deranged, never remotely trying to balance the characters with complexity of thought or feeling. But there are some nicely subtle touches about bullying and artistic snobbery. And even if it's ultimately rather slight, it's also hilariously grisly.

Black's Game
dir Oskar Thor Axelsson; with Thorvaldur David Kristjansson, Johannes Haukur Johannesson 11/Ice ***.
Owing rather a lot to Guy Ritchie's flashy, kinetic filmmaking style (specifically Snatch), this black comedy gradually shifts from goofy comedy to very dark drama as it progresses through a story of violence and drugs. At the centre is Stebbi (Kristjansson), a young guy in trouble with the law who is straightened out by his childhood pal Toti (Johannesson), who's now a drug dealer. So "straightened out" perhaps isn't the right term. Together they launch a massive drug import network to challenge the current mob boss, and things get very, very messy. Oddly, the film starts as a freewheeling romp, with Stebbi's ascent into the high life as a dream come true. Director Axelsson stages all of this with energy and style, holding our interest through sheer personality and keeping our sympathies with Stebbi even as things turn intensely nasty.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

EIFF 4: Searching for paradise

And so we come to EIFF's first weekend, and I'm only mildly backlogged on writing these blog reviews. Still, I'm taking tonight off to attend the festival's annual ceilidh, which I have never managed to go to before. I only wish I had my kilt with me - it's not doing much good hanging in my closet in London! At this halfway point in the festival I've seen 26 films. The best so far have been Tabu and The Imposter...

dir Miguel Gomes; with Teresa Madrugada, Laura Soveral 12/Por *****
Acclaimed and awarded at this year's Berlinale, this artful Portuguese film is simply magical. It's a three-chapter exploration of the idea of paradise, with distinct stories connected by three women who live next door to each other in Lisbon. The prologue is a historical myth about a despondent king, the middle bit centres on the offbeat interaction between the three women, and the third, longest story is an extended flashback about one woman's exotic, romantic life at the foot of Mt Tabu in Africa. All three segments confront Portugal's colonial history in Africa, but filmmaker Gomes does this in an ambitiously personal way that draws us straight into the emotional interaction between the characters. Shot in pristine, timeless black and white, the film is so playful and breathtakingly intimate that we would happily sit there watching it all day. Engaging and haunting, it also refuses to fit into our expectations of movie structure - a real masterpiece

dir Magnus Martens; with with Kyrre Hellum, Mads Ousdal 11/Nor ****
Like Headhunters, which was also based on a Jo Nesbo story, this Norwegian thriller almost plays more like a black comedy than an action movie. It's packed with hilarious characters and situations, but is also rather intensely gripping and gleefully violent... FULL REVIEW ...

Flying Blind
dir Katarzyna; with Helen McCrory, Najib Oudghiri 12/UK ***
It's terrific to see the wonderful McCrory in a leading role as a strong, intelligent and sexy middle-aged woman. And she's superb as a top aerospace expert who falls for much-younger Algerian man (Oudghiri). Yes, in her role as a military contractor, having a torrid romance with a Muslim looks a bit iffy to her colleagues, but this is precisely why she refuses to give in to outside pressure. On the other hand, the script lays in so much suspicion and subterfuge that her actions start looking downright silly as the story develops. And there are more than a few contrived twists and turns before the movie strains itself into political thriller territory. It also doesn't help that the film is shot largely in close-up, like a TV movie, which is what it feels like. A superior one, perhaps, but not as complex as it should have been, especially with such a fine performance at its centre.

One Mile Away
dir Penny Woolcock; with Dylan, Shabba, Zimbo, Yt 12/UK ****
Woolcock returns to the scene of her 2009 rap musical 1 Day for this documentary about the two main feuding gangs in Birmingham, the Burgers and the Johnsons. But what makes this film so notable is that it centres on one guy from each gang who is committed to finding a route to peace between the gangs. Dylan, who starred in 1 Day, is from Burgers turf, and immediately finds some high-profile assistance in his neighbourhood. By contrast, it takes Shabba a full year before he gets support from any Johnsons. Along the way, we meet all kinds of people who have telling insights on the situation, which has resonance for conflicts around the world. And even more interesting is the way the film probes into the reasons behind this black-on-black violence (mainly the male ego!), as well as the whole issue of police racism, which is vividly documented on-screen. So since the film's climactic section encompasses the August 2011 riots, it says even more than Woolcock could have intended when she started.

Friday, 22 June 2012

EIFF 3: Feel the squeeze

Another day of grey skies and driving rain in Edinburgh, perfect weather for watching films at the EIFF. The programme here is feeling increasingly Sundancey, with American and British indie dramas interspersed with offbeat foreign gems. There have been couple of standouts and a couple of duds, but nothing starry enough to grab headlines. Which is fine with me...

The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus
dir Alexandre Phillippe; with Chris Davis, Mike Stock 12/US ****
Paul the octopus achieved global fame for predicting eight out of eight winners in the 2010 World Cup, including the champions, far too accurate to be chance. This high-spirited doc tells his story while also exploring our historical obsession with oracles of all shapes and sizes. The filmmakers interview everyone from bookies and mediums to animal handlers and footballers. It's a rather chaotically structured film, with a bit too much wacky animation, but it's thoroughly entertaining, often laugh-out-loud hilarious. And it also has something important to say about human fascination with the unexplained. If you can take it on faith, that is.

The Rest of the World
dir Damien Odoul; with Marie-Eve Nadeau, Judith Morisseau 12/Fr ***
Watching films about dysfunctional families is never pleasant, partly because of the intimate nature of all that interpersonal destruction. But also because there are inevitably things we recognise about ourselves and our own family interaction, whether we admit it or not. But this film will strain the patience of even the most intrepid filmgoer as it centres on three deeply disturbed sisters, their even more messed up dad and their psychotic monster of a stepmum (a thunderous Emmannuelle Beart). Two of the sisters are especially bothered: Eve (Nadeau) has just discovered that she's pregnant by her dead boyfriend, while Judith (Morisseau) is sure that her true biological father is a mythical ex-boyfriend of her late mother. It's an observant, insightful film, but also rather exhausting.

Never Too Late
dir Ido Fluk; with Niny Geffen, Keren Berger 11/Isr ***
After eight years living all around South America, 30-year-old Herzl (Geffen) reruns home to Tel Aviv to see his mother. But he's unable to settle in, taking a job that sends him around the country, where he visits old friends and tries to come to grips with his life. The key issue is his truncated relationship with his father, who died while he was away. This is one of those nicely shot, acted and edited films that simply wanders through its running time with no sense of direction, as if the director is exorcising personal demons through filmmaking. There are superb sequences along the way that will resonate with audiences, but as a whole it feels pretty aimless and mopey. Fluk shows some real skill with long, complicated takes that retain a sense of earthy rawness, so hopefully his next film will have a bit more focus and drive to it as well.

Young Dudes
dir DJ Chen; with Wang Po-chief, Abe Tsuyoshi 12/Tai **
The lead characters in this Taipei comedy-fantasy are like Bill and Ted's bratty little brothers, two unlikely best pals (Wang and Tsuyoshi) who form a rock band and team up with a Russian girl (Larisa Barukova) to launch a one-world movement that will help humanity survive the coming apocalypse. Or something. The film is so deliberately wacky that we can't grab hold of it, with some rampant overacting, plus nutty camerawork, editing and effects as the film gets increasingly surreal. The early scenes promise an intriguing satire of internet-addicted youth, technological oppression and moral relativism, but the film simply descends into random silliness, from cute puppies to wistful star-gazing. And in the end the script itself admits that the filmmaker has no idea what the movie's trying to say. But young slackers may find a lot to enjoy anyway.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

EIFF 2: Wide-screen epic

Day 2 at EIFF saw the return of David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia to the big screen where it belongs, thanks to a 50th anniversary digital restoration and a new release by Park Curcus. On the other hand, after three gloriously warm and sunny days, the drizzle set in this morning, and it looks like it'll be wet for the next few days at least. Ah well. At least we have good (if a bit blurry) memories of the opening night party last night at the National Museum of Scotland, complete with a Killer Joe bar, a fresh oyster station and a photo booth. I even had a celebrity encounter, running into one of my favourite actors, Brian Cox, as I walked in the room!

Lovely Molly
dir Eduardo Sanchez; with Gretchen Lodge, Johnny Lewis 11/US **
Eerie and atmospheric, this is yet another pointless point-of-view ghost thriller, like The Blair Witch Project (which was co-written and co-directed by Sanchez). There are some intriguing ideas here, but the script never makes anything interesting of them... FULL REVIEW >

dir Richard Ledes; with Elliott Gould, Fred Melamed 12/US **
Having its world premiere here in Edinburgh, with Gould on the competition jury, this low-key indie drama struggles to hold our attention as it meanders through its rather stagey story. Confined to one location and a handful of characters, it's about a senile couple (Gould and Judith Roberts) whose children want them to move into assisted living in the city. But Dad stubbornly refuses to leave, even though he can't quite remember why. The film is mannered and full of irrelevant details, plus a few awkwardly staged scenes that don't feel very honest. Performances are a little over the top as well, with lots of important-sounding dialog that doesn't really mean anything, plus a few theatrical plot points that feel portentous without conveying anything. Still, there are some powerful moments here and there, and some moving scenes too, mainly involving the live-in nurse (Mfoniso Udofia). But in the end the filmmaker overreaches without giving us anything to really take with us.

The Imposter
dir Bart Layton; with Frederick Bourdin, Carey Gibson 12/UK ****.
The film of the fest so far, this narrative documentary plays out like a dramatic thriller as it recounts an outrageous true story about deception. The fimakers interview everyone involved, which narrates events from every side as 23-year-old Bourdin pretended to be a 16-year-old Texan who had been missing for three and a half years. And the boy's family accepted Bourdin as the missing teen, even though he spoke with an accen and had the wrong eye colour! As truths emerges, the mystery actually deepens, involving US political officials, the FBI and a private investigator who should have his own movie. This is an extremely well-made film, with gorgeously shot interviews and re-creations that are hugely evocative. It also unfurls each twist in the tale with maximum suspense value, keeping us glued to the screen with a plot that's even wilder than the similar Catch Me If You Can or I Love You Phillip Morris. Surely a dramatic feature will be made some day, but it can hardly be better than this.

dir Patrik Eklund; with Kjell Bergqvist, Allan Svensson 12/Swe ****
Dry Scandinavian humour infuses this wacky multi-strand comedy with a sharp sense of both the silliness of human ambition and the darker corners of derailed hopes. Set in he present day in a telecoms company that looks like it's stuck in 1975, the film takes a hilarious approach to technology as we follow four company employees: the bratty boss, a beleaguered accountant, an injured technician and a cleaner who's terrified of spiders.. All of these people have to face their fears over the course of a fateful week during which the company is attacked by anarchists. Yes, there are some serious themes at work here, including scenes that are violently and emotionally intense, but the tone is comical from the start, and the film is packed with scenes that make us laugh at the ridiculousness of people who are a little too like us for comfort.

dir Koji Fukada; with Kenji Yamauchi, Kiki Sugino 10/Jpn ****
From Japan, this offbeat comedy-drama centres on a family that runs a small printing press in Tokyo. While the neighbours get up in arms about people living in shacks in heir run-down park, a new employee arrives at the shop and begins to shake up the family. The owner and his young second wife, his sister and his young daughter are all affected by this stranger, who brings his foreign wife to live with him. And as be begins to take over, his intentions are revealed through a surreal series of events that are packed with dry wit and wacky slapstick. It's the absurdity that mkes the film so so much fun to watch, especially for fans of Ozu or Buñuel, as relationships are strained and redefined forever.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

EIFF 1: The kickoff

The rebooted 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival kicks off tonight with William Friedkin's Killer Joe, starring Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, Matthew McConaughey and Thomas Haden Church.

Killer Joe
dir William Friedkin; with Emile Hirsch, Matthew McConaughey 11/US ***.
This film's unhinged plot constantly catches us off guard with its bizarre twists and turns, all of which are grounded on the hapless characters. But despite strong filmmaking, it feels like we're watching a play, especially in the contained final act... FULL REVIEW >

dir Amiel Courtin-Wilson; with Daniel P Jones, Leanne Letch 11/Aus ***
Based on the real experiences of Jones, who plays a version of himself, this intensely personal drama gets under the skin quickly and stays there. The filmmaking is sometimes a bit pretentiously arty, but there's such a gritty earthiness to the film that it's impossible to look away. Jones and Letch have terrific chemistry, bouncing off each other with charming sweetness and hot tempers that could tear each other apart. This is a story about an ex-con drug addict who desperately wants to make his squalid life better, but he's terrified of change. So what chance does he have? Haunting and important, but at times difficult to watch.

dir Luis Prieto; with Richard Coyle, Agyness Deyn 12/UK **
Coyle is superb as a cocky low-life London drug dealer whose life takes a few nasty twists and turns - bad luck combined with risky decisions that squeeze him into a nasty corner. Coyle also has terrific chemistry with his sidekick Bronson Webb, which is strained to he breaking point, drawing out some intriguing subtext that the script seems frightened to explore. And this is a big problem. There's little here that hasn't been said in countless urban London dramas, and the central relationship between Coyle and Deyn never remotely ignites, which kind of leaves us unable to really sympathise with anyone in the story.

The Invader
dir Nicolas Provost; with Issaka Sawadogo, Stefania Rocco 11/Bel ***.
This extremely detailed exploration of one man's odyssey is provocative and riveting, even when it takes some grim turns. It centres on Amadou, an illegal immigrant from somewhere in French-speaking Africa (the charming, intimidating Sawadogo) who ends up in urban Belgium trying to survive. He's clearly a smart, resourceful guy, and everyone he meets likes him, but his status makes getting ahead impossible. After breaking from his traffickers, he meets Agnes (Rocco), and sees her as his greatest hope. But this of course puts a bit too much pressure on her, which leads Amadou into a spiral of dehumanising frustration. The film looks terrific, with a sharp sense of human physicality and glassy modern life. But where the story heads is also very, very dark, which makes he film sometimes feel rather melodramatic.

In non-festival screening news, I also watched: Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in the funny and ultimately moving apocalyptic drama Seeking a Friend for the End of the World; Benjamin Walker in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which we know would be ridiculous before we even saw it; Jean Dujardin and Gilles Lellouche in The Players, a French anthology about infidelity that's riotously funny and surprisingly pointed; another anthology film, 7 Days in Havana, an engaging if rather superficial collection of dramas directed by Gaspar Noe, Elia Suleiman, Benicio Del Toro and others; and the eerie drama Electrick Children, about a 15-year-old from an isolated religious community who is sure she's had an immaculate conception.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Critical Week: Man candy

This week's big press screening was for Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, the male-stripper drama based on the experiences of Channing Tatum (pictured above with costars Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello and Matthew McConaughey). As if the film's heterosexual emphasis wasn't enough, the UK distributor screened the film to us after showing the England-France Euro2012 first-round match in the cinema, so it smelled like a locker room in there. Alas, comments on the film itself are embargoed for a couple of weeks.

Keeping with the theme here, we also saw heartthrob Robert Pattinson's new film Cosmopolis, a Cannes entry directed by David Cronenberg that's sleek and intriguing but ultimately impenetrable. Cillian Murphy stars in Red Lights, an increasingly strained supernatural debunking thriller costarring Robert DeNiro and Sigourney Weaver. Adrien Brody stars in Detachment, a ranty drama from Tony Kaye about the education system. And from Australia, we had the corny slapstick farce A Few Best Men with rising-star hottie Xavier Samuel.

And to appeal to our minds, we saw two potent docs: Searching for Sugar Man is a fascinating story of a forgotten Detroit musician whose failed recording career wasn't quite as disastrous as he thought, since he was bigger than Elvis and the Stones in South Africa. And Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry vividly chronicles the life and work of the charismatic, outspoken Chinese artist who is notoriously in trouble with his own government.
This coming week, London critics are watching Keira Knightley and Steve Carell in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Jean Dujardin and Michel Hazanavicius' next collaboration The Players, the Jo Nesbo thriller Jackpot, the Cannes-contending anthology 7 Days in Havana and the acclaimed Mormo-youth drama Electrick Children.

Finally, I'm heading to Scotland on Monday for the 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival (18 June-1 July), so the blog will reflect what I'm watching there on a daily basis over the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Critical Week: Wanted dead or alive

Two big press screenings for UK critics this week. First was Rock of Ages, the 80s power-ballad musical starring Tom Cruise (above, yes really), Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand. Our comments are embargoed until next weekend. And then there was Ridley Scott's eagerly anticipated Prometheus, which was only shown to the press the day before it opened in UK cinemas. The studio needn't have worried: everyone is loving the film, which isn't quite the Alien prequel everyone expected but is hugely entertaining and visually stunning, especially in Imax 3D.

The only two of my online screeners I managed to get to over the rainy long weekend were Detachment, Tony Kaye's overly bleak exploration of the education system starring Adrien Brody, and Neon Flesh, a Spanish black comedy thriller that looks amazing but never makes much sense out of its fragmented plot.

Otherwise I've been keeping up with TV shows, including the final episodes in this series of Mad Men, which just keeps getting more insanely intense episode by brilliant episode. Will anyone be standing at the end? Meanwhile, Game of Thrones is struggling to bring all those plot strands to some sort of conclusion - I never feel like I get enough of any of them. Comedy-wise I'm loving the first series of Veep, enjoying the second series of Episodes and still making my mind up about the self-indulgent but funny Girls.

This coming week London critics twill be watching, among other things, Channing Tatum in Stephen Soderbergh's stripper comedy-drama Magic Mike, Robert Pattinson in David Cronenberg's urban drama Cosmopolis, Cillian Murphy and Robert DeNiro in the Spanish drama Red Lights, Olivia Newton-John in the Aussie comedy A Few Best Men, and the documentaries Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and The Imposter.