Not the best of times, not the worst of times
With its combination of high-flyers (this is the largest film festival in the UK) and up-and-comers (one of the highlights is the 48-hour film challenge in which participants are randomly assigned a genre and title, then asked to script, shoot, and edit within two days), the Edinburgh Film Festival has real energy and genuine appeal. Not to mention a debonair and gracious patron: Sean Connery. More than 100 films were screened, with special sections for music and advertising videos, animation, shorts, script-writing workshops, rare screenings of Miklos Janosco, a Henri-Georges Clouzot retrospective, and documentaries. But the wide variety didn’t compensate for the middling selections, which favored sentiment over content; the overall effect was admirable rather than dazzling.
Much was made of Scotland’s own Ewan MacGregor, who stars in Young Adam, directed and scripted by David Mackenzie, which opened the festival. Adapted from Alexander Trocchi’s 1950s beat novel, it’s the story of Joe, a young drifter who puts aside his writing ambitions to work the barges in the canals around Glasgow, where an affair with his captain’s wife is only the latest of several bad decisions. Beat novels rarely make good movies: transferred to the more blatant medium, their adolescent and romantic premises often become downright corny. Young Adam inadvertently illustrates this problem. Mackenzie’s leaden direction mistakes preciousness for grit, with the cinematography so tastefully autumnal that barging looks less strenuous than coolly stylish. MacGregor and Tilda Swinton attempt to breathe life into characters not only unsympathetic but utterly uncompelling, but their heavy-lifting sex scenes are uncomfortably self-conscious and thespian. With its earnest tone and unengaging characters, Young Adam is fraught and freighted and ultimately runs aground.
Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical In America chronicles an Irish family’s stint in New York in the 1980s, the move an attempt to make a fresh start after a death in the family. Sheridan presents a Sesame Street-ready ethnic neighborhood where the drug dealers are softees and AIDS becomes a learning opportunity; most unsettling is the censored skyline, with the World Trade Center conspicuously absent from the often-observed NYC skyline. The Towers were integral to New York at the time and their exclusion strikes a false note. Odder still is that two-thirds of the way through, In America for a time becomes a far more complicated and captivating study in loss. Paddy Considine brings real anger to his part as the Sheridan stand-in, credibly subduing and finally manifesting the grief for a lost child that underlies this story. And the always watchable and gratifyingly unpredictable Samantha Morton imbues the wife with more moxie than modesty, effectively cutting some of the sweetness of their two daughters, cloyingly played by Sarah and Emma Bolger. In America reverts to its fairy-tale sensibility at the end, which is too bad.
An unpromising conceit — thirtyish Wilbur tries again and again to kill himself — made for one of the better projects in the festival. Admittedly, lachrymal aims lurk in Wilbur (Wants to Kill Himself) but they’re beautifully undercut by Jamie Sives’s performance in the title role: you really feel he wants to kill himself and how tiresome this is for those around him, particularly his brother, understatedly played by Adrian Rawlins. A Jules and Jim triangle develops when Wilbur and Alice, his brother’s new wife, fall for each other. As Alice, Shirley Henderson evokes many of Audrey Hepburn’s qualities — wit, intelligence, and the improbable combination of sexiness and decency. Dark humor keeps the bittersweet ending from descending into mush, offering instead a bracing affirmation of life. The art direction merits special mention, with perfect details of Scottish interiors, such as the near-ubiquitous wooden-slat-clothes dryers, the animal and plant cut-out “scraps” favored by generations of Scots children, and especially the inviting chaos of the second-hand bookshop the brothers run.
Clearly Gregor Jordan wanted Ned Kelly to evoke the insouciance and bravado of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and even Knocking on Heaven’s Door, positioning Heath Ledger’s Kelly as a kind of rock star/ Robin Hood for the pre-independence Australians. The sepia-tone cinematography and rousing score hamhandedly remind us this is a Legend but the curiously Peckinpah-style explosions and gore make it feel like yet another in a series of movies-as-video-games. In the final scenes in which the Kelly gang’s furnacy armor bore a troubling resemblance to Monty Python’s Black Knight, and everyone looks so good and dies so excruciatingly that the effect didn’t so much invoke sympathy as skirt parody.
Edinburgh was strong on debut features, among which The Hours of the Day was especially striking. Using a circular structure, director Jaime Rosales shows an apparently humdrum mother and her late-thirties son breakfasting in their stolid middle-class apartment on the periphery of a Spanish city, the camera-work nearly documentary in its matter-of-factness. Slowly, details accrete: Abel (Alex Brendemühl) dithers about his shop, placates his girlfriend, caters to his mother, but completes nothing, remaining infuriatingly passive. Until he apparently randomly corners a fellow visitor to a public men’s room and strangles him; the scene is shot in a single-take and in real time, the victim’s struggle uncomfortably long. Rosales’ film has a stealthy quality that makes it linger long after viewing, the whole far more complex than its prosaic parts suggest. With overtones of Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing and with touches of early Roman Polanski and Chantal Akerman, The Hours of the Day is detached and detailed, horrifying in its sheer normality.
Less successful but also concerned with the banality of murder is For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow. In her first feature, Siegrid Alnoy also brings Akerman to mind, occasionally conveying the true horrors of “la vie normale.” Sasha Andres plays Christine Blanc, a pitiless and awkward misfit, willing to go to any length to fit in with her average officemates. The self-conscious and over-tricky cinematography softens some of the brutality, though the costuming, especially Christine’s ox-blood-red wardrobe, is particularly effective. Appropriately, Christine finds her match at the mall, her favorite spot because it doesn’t ask anything of her and her eventual liberation through murder rings true. Unlike The Hours of the Day, For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow doesn’t know when to stop and the end feels wishful rather than fated.
Several recent UK and Irish films fall into a shaggy-dog category — I Went Down and Lawless Heart are examples, as is John Crowley’s first feature, Intermission. Here lovers break up and set an entire community out of kilter. The opening, in which Colin Farrell vies Tim Roth in Pulp Fiction for sudden fury, sets in motion the various stories that ricochet off one another, their social circle in a kind of Shakespearean disarray until the couple reconcile. Yet again Shirley Henderson shines in a supporting role, her amazing use of a washed-out pale blue hoodie managing to convey her rage and pain after a humiliating break-up of her own. Though the script works some jokes very hard (particularly the delights of brown sauce), Intermission was appealing and fun to watch.
Four men with little in common find themselves in a DWI rehabilitation group in the lively and brisk One for the Road. First-time feature director and writer Chris Cooke never condescends to his deeply flawed characters. One for the Road is light on plot, essentially tracing the odd friendship that develops among the four, culminating in a night of excess at the Donald Trump-like home of the most successful. Art direction deserves special attention, from the affirmations that festoon the DWI therapy room to the fantastically tasteless mansion.
Similarly energetic is Four Eyes. Made on a fish & chips budget by writer/director Duncan Finnigan, Four Eyes centers on Paul Hunt (Gordon Grant), seen first face-down in a field while a couple argue over money. He’s apparently been mugged, though he lies so compulsively throughout the film it’s hard to know if he’s ever straight. At his sales job, his boss has kitted out the whole team with glasses, which he says an American survey proved makes people think you’re 15% smarter. Like the spiky UK television series The Office, Four Eyes shows the caviling and beastliness that define so much of cubicle life. In a grimly funny scene, Paul and his pregnant girlfriend discuss the money they don’t have while his live-in father gathers his paltry treasures, aiming to fund the couple’s new place at the pawnshop, all of it sound-tracked by an unseen leaf blower. Four Eyes loses focus a bit at the end, but Finnigan is definitely a director to watch.
There were also truly dismal films such as Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, a a perfect example of how style and exposition and moodiness add up to nothing. The film does have a great watery look, as though the action — nearly all of it shot at night — were taking place in the bottom of a tank. But a gangster trying to absolve his past by becoming a woodsman needs a personality to match, and Clive Owen as the unfortunately named Will Graham brought only the eponymous cracker to mind. Wearing his hoodie like the Shroud of Turin, Graham decides to avenge the suicide of his kid brother, a figure about whom so little is revealed it’s like being asked to care about an actor on a billboard. The trite dialogue and music do nothing to help, and the conclusion, in which Will calls up his barber and tailor to get himself properly suited-up to retaliate against those who drove his brother into the abyss looks more like a makeover than a rubout.
Even the excellent Shirley Henderson couldn’t salvage Alison Peebles’ After Life, a gooey family melodrama that relies on medical clichés as unwelcome as the common cold: people with Down Syndrome are more sensitive than humanity in general, cancer as the Great Unifier. Kevin McKidd plays a driven journalist forced to return home when his mother, having fallen ill, is unable to care for his afflicted sister. After Life has a soap opera rhythm and lines to match, emphasized by McKidd throwing punches at doors and the like.
McKidd had another chance for scenery chewing in Richard Jobson’s debut feature, 16 Years of Alcohol, a semi-autobiographical look at rock and roll and getting sober. The opening voice-over, narrating a stylized child’s memory of his father’s drinking and philandering, relied so heavily on the word hope that I lost mine. Though Jobson tries for the meanness and menace of Clockwork Orange, his Glasgow louts never get beyond an unappealing petulance; unsavory oiks you’d cross the street to get away from.
Similarly disappointing was Christophe Blanc’s A Big Girl Like You, which makes the fatal error of taking a teenage girl’s desire to be “a real woman” at face value, dwelling on the highly overrated loss of innocence theme. As played by Mercedes Cechetto, Sabine has an undeniable brashness, but her adventures feel scripted rather than natural and her sullen pout gets old very fast. A Big Girl Like You works like the irksome video diary of a 16-year-old, whose great adventures (a porn film, an older amant) have no consequences other than to make her poutier than ever.
Pablo Berger takes a much more entertaining look at porn in his first feature, Torremolinos 73. Set in Franco’s Spain, the film not only faithfully reproduces the styles, personal and domestic, that marked the era, but hints at the pan-Europe cooperation to come. Based on a true story, it’s about Alfred (Javier Camará), milquetoast encyclopedia salesman, and his wife, Carmen (Candela Peña), who take part in a sex-guide project, Danish-funded and for export only. Given a camera and told to document their sex life, Alfredo discovers his inner Ingmar, imbuing these bedroom training films with Bergmanesque angles and turning his wife into a Danish star. Berger has a light touch with some amusing sight gags such as the fully armored knight that serves as Alfredo’s stand-in while his wife brushes up on seduction and Alfredo’s suggestion that he and his wife cure their childlessness with adoption after spying Cine magazine’s cover story on Born Free. Wry and sympathetic, Torremolinos 73 evokes an entire era without sugarcoating it, with plenty of real laughs along the way.
Another unexpectedly funny film is Evenhand, a first feature by Joseph Pierson. A local policeman and his new partner patrol small-town Texas, forced to give away plush toys to children who witness arrests as a public relations ploy. The film has a garish, supermarket-at-night look and focuses on the petty sadism of the officers’ petty routine, such as when the small force lunches outside on the forlorn lawn outside a crack house just to hassle the inhabitants. Several shots show offenders in the background, wearing boards proclaiming I AM A THIEF or I DWI like portable stockades. Evenhand would benefit from a quicker ending, but the pace is solid and promises good things from Pierson.
The most striking up-and-comer is Li Yang, whose first feature Blind Shaft provided some of the very best viewing at the festival. This beautifully realized and chilling film has a folktale feel, emphasized by the barren, mysterious landscapes and especially the velvety dark of the mines (the one Li Yang filmed in collapsed two days after he finished). Set among the itinerant coal miners of post-Mao China, which one character describes as “having shortages of everything except people,” it focuses on two men whose scheme for making money is to befriend a third by telling him that if he poses as a cousin they’ll break him into the lucrative coal mining business. They’re like stray, feral dogs — in fact, one flap on the hat of the meaner of the two is always up, a kind of canine alertness. They insure their patsy then kill him, collecting the payout from owners only too happy to see them move on elsewhere. They pick up what appears to be the perfect victim, except one of the cons becomes genuinely fond of him. “We’ll get him laid today and kill him tomorrow,” he suggests. Not only did the film engage narratively, but it also managed to convey the desperation and toil of life in China without being didactic. The mine scenes are so creepy and claustrophobic that even the well-air-conditioned cinema seemed airless.
American Splendor, written and directed by Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini, closed the festival. The movies seem to have discovered curmudgeons in the past few years and Harvey Pekar, played with abject spleen by Paul Giamatti, fits the bill perfectly. The narrative of his rise to fame; his oddball friends; finding his perfect mate in his wife Joyce (Hope Davis); his bout with cancer; and ultimate semi-happy family life with their adopted daughter has an inadvertent Horatio Alger quality to it. Pekar’s snide remarks feel like posturing. He definitely keys into the often lackluster qualities of non-celebrity American life and it’s mildly interesting to see the actors side-by-side with the people they’re based on but not nearly startling enough. Like Michael Moore and his obvious and hard-to-disagree-with commentaries, the writers/directors of American Splendor offer remarks but no insights. An appropriate end to a festival with too much whimper and not enough bang.