Category Archives: Festivals

Edinburgh Film Festival: Berberian Sound Studio

Finally, a Powell nominee that looks, feels and, most of all, sounds like an award winner.  Berberian Sound Studio, from Katalin Varga director Peter Strickland, stars Toby Jones as a sound technician recruited to work on a Suspiria-esque Italian horror film in the early 70s. More at home with gentle documentaries about the English countryside than graphic tales of undead witches, Jones soon finds his grip on reality loosening.

It’s difficult to describe the plot in any more detail: it’s essentially a journey into the protagonist’s fracturing psyche.  So while those seeking a traditional narrative may be left frustrated, anyone who wants to see the tools of cinema used to surprising and creative effect can expect a treat.  I was reminded of The Artist by the way sound is used to play with and confound audience expectations, while the sense of menace and disorientation has much in common with David Lynch (I was particularly put in mind of Inland Empire).

Spaghetti horrror buffs may well also be intrigued (it did cross my mind that the film might also turn up at FrightFest); it’s clear Strickland knows his Argento, and while some genre fans might be baffled by the closing scenes, I’ve seen Lucio Fulci films that made a lot less sense.

It’s one of the best films at the Festival, and one which clearly loves film – both as an artform and a physical object.  Highly recommended.

Edinburgh 2012 part II

Three days in to this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, and while I haven’t seen any major stinkers, there’s been nothing to blow me away either. Let’s start with the longest. Blood of My Blood is a three hour drama set in Lisbon, based around the travails of Maria (Rita Blanco) and her extended family. The themes are family loyalty and sacrifice, but the tools unfortunately include a plot reveal straight from the box of melodramatic cliches. Also, a climactic scene is overly unpleasant – that’s enough forced blow jobs for one year, Edinburgh, thanks all the same.

Lovely Molly is the latest from Eduardo Blair Witch Sanchez, and suffers from overfamiliarity. Not only does the use of video footage recall his debut (although this is not a found footage film), but plot elements recall recent releases such as The Silent House and The Pact.

Gretchen Lodge is very good as newlywed Molly, who moves with her husband Tim into her parents’ home. Pretty soon, things are going bump in the night and family skeletons are emerging from the closet. Is this an actual haunting, or is Molly going nuts?

The answer seemed pretty obvious to me, despite some attempts to imply a supernatural dimension – which Sanchez admitted in the Q&A were bumped up after early test screenings. Although that does give us one memorably eerie image at the close, it also means the story doesn’t completely satisfy at either level. An OK watch that doesn’t offer anything new, you can safely wait until this one’s on telly.

That’s also true of Flying Blind, a BBC production starring Helen McCrory as an aerospace engineer who starts a relationship with Algerian student – OR IS HE? – played by Najib Oudghiri. Though nicely played and good to look at (Bristolians can play spot the location), the central relationship feels like a dramatic construct rather than anything real. If the superior Page Eight last year couldn’t muster a cinema release, there’s no reason for this not to go straight to BBC 2.

Better things came with Life Without Principle, Johnny To’s crime thriller set against a global financial shitstorm. Various characters – among them a cop, a gangster, a bank saleswoman, and a bunch of financially strapped innocent bystanders – are involved in are affected by the murder of a loan shark. I’d bet my money on a Hollywood remake of this coming our way before long, so invest some time in the original.

Finally, one of my favourites to date. The best thing about festivals is sitting down for a film about which you no little and expect nothing, and being delighted by the result. That’s what happened with Flicker, a deadpan Swedish comedy centred around the struggling Unicom Telecommunications company.

Attempting to launch a new 4G network, but faced with a misguided advertising campaign and customer dissatisfaction and regular sabotage, the company also has staff who aren’t quite up to the challenge. Chief among them is sad sack Kenneth (Jacob Nordenson), whose recurring IT problems leave a crucial report incomplete, and Trod (Knell Bergqvist), the company head, who is heroically unaware of his own inadequacy.

Though we eventually realise the film is set in 2011, the design seems to have been pickled in the 70s. Almost everything at Unicom (including the cars, the decor, and Kenneth’s entire wardrobe) is in shades of brown. (Maybe bits of Sweden do look like this, but it seems unlikely.) Their attempts at promotional launches are no more up to date.

A number of plots intertwine, occasionally threatening to tip from somewhat black comedy to outright tragedy, while never quite doing so. Occasionally absurdist, with moments of outright slapstick, the film is quite a charmer. Lovely closing shot, too.

Edinburgh 2012: Day one

The Life and Times of Paul, the Psychic Octopus

Alexandre O Philippe’s documentary The People vs George Lucas, shown at Edinburgh a couple of years ago, was a hugely entertaining look at Star Wars fans’ love/hate relationship with their favourite films,and their creator. His latest also looks at how celebrity culture affects and inspires its followers, through the story of the cephalopod who enjoyed a stunning run of accurate predictions during the 2010 world cup.

Opening on a melancholy note with Paul’s funeral, the film then looks at his rise to fame, his effect on those around him, and the question of whether or not his predictions were anything more than a massive fluke. Many of those interviewed – Paul’s UK-based agent, for one – clearly have their tongues in their cheeks at least part of the time, but the film is careful to allow Paul, and the other animals who make brief appearances, to retain their dignity. It’s like a more flippant version of last year’s Project Nim. Even the psychics who claim to receive messages from the deceased octopus are not mocked (at least not openly; the viewer can draw their own conclusions). It’s a nice balancing act that results in an entertaining film that asks sensible questions about a silly subject; although the relatively brief running time is quite long enough.

7 Days in Havana

A portmanteau movie from directors including Benicio del Toro, Gaspar Noe and Laurent Cantet (among others) that comprises seven short films set in the titular Cuban city. That’s quite a few shorts, and I did feel that maybe 5 days in Havana would have allowed several of them valuable extra breathing space. As it is, the stories are on the slight side, starting with Josh Hutcherson as a young actor who has a brief encounter on s drunken night out. Emir Kusturica amusingly plays himself as a drunk, grudgingly accepting an award from the Havana Film Festival, but the most memorable and disturbing segment is Noe’s voodoo vignette. While as a full movie it may not totally satisfy, Havana itself – as always – looks, and sounds, beautiful.

Killer Joe

This year’s opening film is a lurid, violent, occasionally funny slice of melodrama from William Friedkin; though if I hadn’t known, I might have taken it for a lost work by Oliver Stone.

Matthew McConaughey is on great form in the title role, as a cop who moonlights as a hired killer. He’s employed by a spectacularly dumb white trash family for a plan masterminded by Chris (Emile Hirsch) to kill his mother for the insurance payout. As Joe normally demands payment up front, Chris agrees to put up his younger sister Dottie up as collateral. Dottie (Juno Temple) appears to be away with the fairies for much of the time, but to what extent is tough to say.

Obviously, the plan goes wrong, and it does so in a fairly OTT manner. I was unaware going in that the film is based on a play (by Tracey Letts) but it became obvious well before the end. It actually feels like something Quentin Tarantino trying to write like Tennessee Williams; the mix of explicit violence and black comedy is sometimes uncomfortable, and the characters never feel as though they have any existence beyond the stage.

Sci-Fi London 2012

I only spent a day at the International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, but the four films I saw managed to cover a pretty good range: two documentaries, one actual sf film and one fantasy gave a pleasingly varied spread.

The day started with a definite highlight: a new film directed by William Shatner. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d type. And yet it’s true: his documentary The Captains managed to be funny, interesting and moving.

The basic idea is that Shatner is jetting around the world to interview the various other actors to have played Captains in various versions of Star Trek: Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula and Chris Pine. There’s every reason to fear this might not work. Shatner, after all, is probably the closest thing America has to Tom Baker. Like Baker, he is indelibly linked to a role in a sci-fi series, and has been happily playing a caricatured version of himself for so long that it’s impossible to tell where the persona ends and the real person begins. But while there’s a fair amount of Shatner doing his thing (wandering around a Trek convention and enjoying the whoops as people notice him), there’s also plenty of space for the other actors to talk – although Brooks prefers to answer questions through the magical language of jazz rather than English. (Is he like this all the time? It must be exhausting for everyone else.)

Along the way, interesting parallels emerge: all the actors had a stage background before being cast in Trek (though the tiny clip we see of Shatner in Shakespeare suggests his liking for generous slices of ham didn’t start with Where No Man Has Gone Before). A couple cite great teachers for inspiring their interest in the arts. All talk about how the long hours demanded by weekly TV shows affected their personal lives; in the most moving sequence, a clip of Shatner and Bakula laughing ruefully over stories of their divorces (Bakula’s was during his time on Quantum Leap) segues to Stewart admitting that his greatest regret is how he behaved during his two marriages.

Shatner doesn’t completely put his ego aside. He credits Stewart’s approach to the role, as stated during their interview, with helping him overcome his embarrassment at being associated with Trek. At that point, the cynic in me did perk up, asking: Really, Bill? You had this epiphany only just now, after how many films and conventions, during the making of your film? While I don’t doubt that Shatner’s perception of his most famous work has shifted in the way he describes, the idea that it took this long felt driven more by the need to give the documentary a narrative resolution than by strict chronological accuracy. But that’s a minor point. The Captains is a very entertaining film, and while it is obviously of particular interest to Trek fans, it should also appeal to anyone interested in hearing actors talk about their craft.

The second documentary of the day, Eric Solstein’s The Golden Age of Science Fiction, is likely to appeal to a narrower audience. The subject is John W Campbell Jr, legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine whose reign spanned over thirty years. The picture that emerges from the various talking heads is occasionally contradictory; the jury may be permanently out on whether he was the appalling racist and anti-semite painted in some anecdotes, or whether, as other suggest, he just liked being contrary to inspire a reaction. The most interesting part of the film is a 1965 short by James Gunn, Lunch with John Campbell, which records a lunch-cum-editorial discussion between Campbell and two of his writers, including Harry Harrison, as they attempt to pitch Campbell an SF version of Lifeboat. Later, I wondered what they would have made of Eric Hayden’s The Last Push, which was a lifeboat story of sorts. Khary Payton (who is very good) plays astronaut Michael Forrest, who is woken from hibernation by a technical malfunction aboard the first manned flight to Jupiter’s moon Europa, where evidence of life has been spotted. With his co-pilot dead and the habitation module wrecked, Forrest is stuck in a tiny room, with communication subject to long delays, obliged to rewire the ships engines in order to get back to Earth – a journey which takes several years.

You can’t imagine this particular space oddity having much life outside festivals; certainly it would be too tough a sell for a theatrical release and I must confess that had I been watching on DVD, my finger may have connected with the fast forward button. The real issue is that it’s a struggle to imagine Forrest, or anyone, staying sane, stuck in one room over that length of time (and I was impressed with the way his one set of clothes still looked as good as new at the end – maybe they’re made from some super futuristic fabric). Payton just about keeps it believable, and the film does have some very pretty FX shots, but this is ultimately a noble effort that doesn’t quite come off.

My final film of the day, Kurt Kuenne’s Shuffle, was a very different kettle of fish. A romantic fantasy, it follows photographer Lovell Milo (TJ Thyne) who is, for reasons unknown to him, living his days in a completely random order. One day he is 92; the next, 30; the next, ten. He becomes convinced this is happening so that he can change a tragic event in his life; all he has to do is work out what that was, when it happened, and how he can avoid it.

Festival Director Louis Savy assured me this film would make me cry. I insisted that was highly unlikely, on the grounds that I am cold and dead inside, while secretly hoping he was right. Sadly, my tear ducts remained dry; although some scenes do pack a decent punch – particularly those between the young Lovell and his fairly monstrous father – the resolution becomes too treacly for me (part of the problem is the string-heavy, romantic score, which Kuenne also composed). It’s ultimately closer to It’s a Wonderful Life than Memento, but I don’t doubt that’s completely what Kuenne was aiming for. I’m also sure that plenty of people will love it dearly, and that’s absolutely fair enough.

Edinburgh 2011 reviews continued

Albatross: Enjoyable coming of age yarn that plays a little like Tamara Drewe, though for my money it’s a lot more entertaining.  The middle aged writer this time is Sebastian Koch, still living off and haunted by the success of his debut novel a couple of decades previously.  The object of his desire is Emilia (Jessica Brown-Findlay), a free spirit, aspiring writer and new best friend to his daughter Beth (Felicity Jones). 

Emilia is a gift of a role for Brown-Findlay, who will deservedly get a lot more work from this film (I was trying to remember what I recognised her from – turned out to be an episode of Misfits, though she was also in Downton Abbey).  Koch and Jones are also strong, as is Julia Ormonds as Beth’s bitter mother.  It is perhaps a bit too tidily structured (it’s like, everyone in the film has an albatross round their neck, yeah?) but a very worthwhile watch nonetheless.

Rabies: This Israeli horror starts like many a torture porn flick: a young woman is caught in a trap in the woods, a young man is struggling to free her, a killer is on the prowl.  Once the rest of the characters turn up – two couples looking for a tennis club, a couple of cops – it becomes more of a black comedy. On those terms it works pretty well, though it does stretch credulity that so many stupid people could show up in the same remote spot in such a tight time period.  The film has some decent jumps among the running around in the woods, and a good punchline, but the high level of fuckwittery on display makes you want to throttle many of the characters. 

Troll Hunter: The hotly anticipated found footage comedy horror from Norway.  A trio of students are attempting to make a film about an apparent poacher: it’s not really spoiling things to say he turns out to be a troll hunter, secretly employed by the Norwegian authorities to manage the country’s troll population. 

My expectations for this were probably too high, and I suspect I’ll like it more on a second viewing.  First time round I felt the need for more scares among the comedy, and a subplot about one of the characters becoming ill ends up going nowhere.  But the basic concept is strong, and the trolls themselves are beautifully rendered, looking just like you imagined them in childhood. 

The Divide: There seem to be a quite a few apocalypses on screen at Edinburgh this year (apocalypti?), and this is the most depressing.  After someone – we never know who – drops a nuke on New York, a group of characters hole up in a bunker under their apartment building to wait for rescue, which doesn’t come.  Things get gradually worse and worse for them, and the luckless audience.  I can’t honestly recommend that anyone see this film, but if you want something that crushes all sense of hope and fills you with loathing and contempt for your fellow man, then this certainly does the job.

Finally, The Caller.  A slightly odd selection for the Festival – it’s not bad by any means, but I’m not clear what it’s doing here rather than the shelves of HMV in a box with ‘the stars of Twilight and True Blood’ plastered across it.

Rachel Lefevre moves into an old apartment after splitting from her violent husband, where she starts getting phone calls from a woman who thinks it’s 1977.  Our heroine decides it would be a good idea to encourage her to be less of a doormat, only to inadvertantly create a monster – a crazed murderer who who is able to bump off the people she cares about before she’s even met them. 

It reminded me of Asif Kapadia’s The Return, in that it’s a straight to DVD premise with greater stylistic aspirations.  Lefevre and her love interest Stephen Moyer are both good, but it’s one of those films that will work just as well on TV.

Edinburgh 2011 part II

Interestingly, the first two documentaries I’ve seen at Edinburgh this year have followed very similar plot arcs.  Both concern an individual who is feted from an early age for his unusual intellectual abilities. In both films, the subject becomes a media darling before his unpredictable and aggressive behaviour begins to drive his friends away. He becomes a lonely, tragic individual before a late partial redemption, thanks to old friends and supportive well-wishers, allows him to live out his days in a degree of comfort and security. Both tell their stories through a.mix of archive footage and interviews with people who knew and worked with the subject, who is now deceased.

Also, they’re both excellent.

The comparison does fall down in that genius chess player Bobby Fischer- subject of Bobby Fischer Against the World- was brought down by his own paranoia and madness, whereas Nim Chimsky- the primate whose life is explored in Project Nim – was exploited  from birth by humans whose motives he could not possibly understand. He was initially part of an experiment to study apes’ potential to learn  to communicate like humans, being raised in a family like human baby, and taught sign language. Later, as  he became too strong and unpredictable to control, he ended up in an animal experimentation lab.

A number of his teachers clearly feel a degree of guilt for the part they played in Nim’s unnatural life (though the project’s originator might benefit from a little more self awareness). Nim’s essential powerlessness makes his story the more emotionally affecting of the two, but both films are highly recommended.

Edinburgh 2011 reviews

The first couple of days of screenings here have been a mixed bag. John Michael Macdonald’s The Guard turned out to be a fine choice for opening film: a hugely entertaining crowd pleaser which sees In Bruges meet Lethal Weapon. The shared lineage with the former film is evident throughout; not only are the directors brothers,  there’s the presence of Brendan Gleeson, on top form with the hilariously sweary dialogue. Here, Gleeson’s deceptively undistinguished Garda officer is teamed with Don Cheadle’s FBI agent to track down  team of drug smugglers led by Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong.
The Argentine end of the world drama Phase 7 had it’s moments, but some odd shiftsin tone meant I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked.  As society collapses under the onslaught of a deadly virus, a young couple hole up in their apartment block while their neighbours take up arms against each other.  
The scenario is played mostly straight, but with occasional jarring lurches into black comedy and slapstick that do little more than diffuse tension.  Worse, the central couple are quite annoying –  he guy is petulant  and unreliable, while the woman spends most of her time complaining (often with some cause, but still).  I was also distracted by the score, which is a homage (or rip off, if you’re feeling less charitable) of John Carpenter’s back catalogue. I’ve seen worse, but it’s not a total success.
Much better is Tomboy, a tween variant on Boy’s Don’t Cry, from Water Lillies director Celine Sciamma. Lead character, a 10 year old girl called Laure, moves house and impulsively pretends to the local kids that she’s a boy. It’s very plausible at first – lead Zoe Heran is remarkable, and the film actually conceals her gender for the first 10 minutes – but the illusion proves harder and harder to maintain, and you’re soon dreading the inevitable. A moving, believable film with a  collection of superb child performances.
The Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr makes films for people who find the works of Ingmar Bergman to be on the frenetic side.   Turin Horse, which may apparently be his final work, is described in the programme this: “In Turin in 1889, the philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche stopped a cab driver from whipping his horse and promptly collapsed, spending hs remaining years in more or less demented silence.” Quite what this has to do with the events we seeon screen I’m unclear, though “demented silence” is certainly how the two main characters live. A man and his adult daughter living in an isolated house on a permanently windswept plain, we see then going about their daily routine: feeding the horse, cleaning, cooking (their diet consists of boiled potatoes and nothing else).
Gradually we become aware that something is wrong: a neighbour visits with warnings of doom, the horse become sick and refuses to eat.  Just what apocalyptic events are  unfolding we never learn: we simply observe the two people descend into silent, baffled despair.
Tarr – who has also programmed some vintage Hungarian cinema for this year’s EIFF – can only be described as an acquired taste. His work makes no concessions to those who enjoy such things as plot and dialogue. You have to be willing to immerse yourself in his bleak, black and white, doom-laden visions to get any kind of pleasure from this film; not everyone will be willing to make that kind of leap.