Film Festivals

59th EDINBURGH FILM FESTIVAL

By • Sep 1st, 2005 •

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As usual Edinburgh is alive with cultural activity in the month of August. This year’s buzz surrounded a big budget sci-fi flick from the creator of Buffy, questions were raised over whether MAD HOT BALLROOM really was the new SPELLBOUND, and of course, which stars were going to grace the red carpet?

The longest continually running film festival in the world may have started as a documentary event but it now attracts the cream of international cinema year after year. Born and raised in Edinburgh I may be biased, but I feel there is no better celebration of film anywhere. I sacrificed the few hot summer days my city receives in order to sit in dark cinemas and view the best the festival had to offer.

Frenzy ensued at the international premiere of SERENITY. Extra security was drafted in as crowds lined up to catch a glimpse of the cast and writer/director Joss Whedon. In a festival first, tickets for the screening were sold out within hours, and later changed hands for ridiculous sums on eBay. Whedon’s big screen directorial debut is based on canceled TV show ‘Firefly’ but don’t worry if you’ve never seen it as the opening of the movie brings newcomers up to speed. The action takes place 500 years in the future and features a crew of misfits and outsiders battling against the (evil) Alliance. Sci-fi films often sacrifice plot for effects but luckily this is not the case here. Sometimes the movie felt a little familiar, with Nathan Fillion’s Captain Mal a shameless copy of Han Solo and elements borrowed from Indiana Jones and Alien/s (though thankfully not BATTLEFIELD EARTH). It’s clear that Whedon’s strength lies in his characterisation; we care about these people and their plight.

There are talks of a sequel already and if SERENITY cleans up at the box office, Whedon will finally exact his revenge on the Fox executives who pulled the plug.

Africa’s submission for Best Foreign Language film at next year’s Oscars, TSOTSI, should have no problem walking away with the award. TSOTSI cleaned up at the Edinburgh awards, beating SERENITY to the audience award and the coveted Best New British Feature film. A collaboration between the UK and South Africa, the narrative takes place during six days in the life of gang leader David who raised himself after being orphaned by AIDS. The film opens with a brutal scene on a train where a wealthy businessman is robbed and killed by the gang. Something in David shifts: he starts to feel regret for his crimes and wants to break away from his current life. His solution is to carjack a woman to escape without realising her young child is in the back seat. As he struggles to cope with the child he meets a young mother, Miriam. Through their relationship he is forced to face up to his past and unearth the motivation for his violent nature. From here David begins his redemption.
The film looks spectacular which is unusual given that it’s shot in abject squalor, and the cast of unknowns sparkle. There are the inevitable comparisons with CITY OF GOD, but TSOTSI is very much its own movie; a well crafted piece of cinema from writer/director Gavin Hood.

Meeting the in-laws does not always guarantee a cat that can flush the toilet and interrogation by a former CIA agent. In the real world it is much more awkward, gut wrenching and emotional. In JUNEBUG George (Alessandro Nivola) takes new bride Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) to meet his parents in North Carolina. Madeleine is sophisticated and well spoken; the antithesis of George’s church loving, hard working family. Madeleine doesn’t get off to a good start when she knocks over one of her new mother-in-law Peg’s ornaments and calls her by the wrong name. Pregnant sister-in-law Ashley (Amy Adams) falls in love with Madeleine instantly and seems to be the only member of the family making any effort. We discover that George hasn’t been home for three years and his reappearance opens up old wounds with younger brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie). Frustratingly, George is the character we learn least about during the movie, he is the one person that connects everyone yet we don’t even find out what he does for a living or why he hasn’t been home for so long. Whilst critics have rightly praised Adams’ performance as Ashley, Ben McKenzie deserves plaudits for his portrayal of mean and moody Johnny. When his stint on The O.C. finishes he should have a long career ahead of him as a great character actor.

MARILYN HOTCHKISS’ BALLROOM DANCING AND CHARM SCHOOL: hardly a catchy title. By the time you’ve finished saying it at the box office, the film is almost finished! But then missing this piece of sentimental rubbish wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Marisa Tomei, Sean Astin, Adam Arkin, John Goodman and Danny DeVito must have been broke or desperate, and prove the theory that an impressive cast list does not guarantee a great movie. The film suffers from poor dialogue and a questionable plot. Steve Mills (Goodman) is on his way to meet a girl he promised himself to more than 40 years ago when he is involved in a car crash. As his life slips away he tells his story to passer-by Frankie (Robert Carlisle) and makes him swear to meet his childhood sweetheart Lisa at the titular school. Needless to say Lisa isn’t there but Frankie sticks around and takes part in a class. It transpires that Frankie is a widower and is attending a therapy group with other men in the same position. They tell anecdotes of their deceased including one of the only truly funny scenes where Arkin’s character, Gabe, remembers that his wife “had a hairy ass”. One by one his therapy buddies join the school and learn to let go of the past. Frankie finds romance with classmate Meredith (Tomei) and clashes with her step-brother Randall (Donnie Whalberg). The kind of film to watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon when there’s nothing on TV, but hardly worth shelling out hard cash for.

GRIZZLY MAN has a simple plot – man devoted to bears killed by his own obsession. Timothy Treadwell may have seen crazy to casual observers; a man who spent every summer for 13 years living in the wilds of Alaska with his beloved grizzlies. They all had names, as did the foxes he regularly came across. The footage Treadwell shot is incredible, the kind of close-ups that most wildlife shows could never get. One shot where a bear is scratching his back against a tree reminded me of ‘The Jungle Book’. Of course in real life Baloo would have eaten Mowgli for breakfast. Director Werner Herzog takes a sympathetic standpoint but others are not so charitable. Locals believe “he got what he deserved” for not obeying the simplest rule of nature – bears are predators, humans are the enemy. Many have criticised Treadwell for letting girlfriend Amie Huguenard accompany him and the senseless loss of her life too. Herzog spares us the audio tape which bears the sounds of the fatal attack on the pair because this absorbing documentary doesn’t need to descend into the macabre to be an excellent work.

POLICE BEAT is an unusual crime caper set in Seattle. The film follows bicycle policeman Z (Pape Sidy Niang) though his working week. Although Z speaks English during the film’s dialogue, the narration telling of his turmoil at his girlfriend Rachel’s camping trip with a male friend is entirely in Wolof (the native language of Senegal, where Z originates from). This gives the movie an interestingly unique quality as does its pitch black humour. The inhabitants and crimes we come across range from dull to downright ludicrous. The scenery is gorgeous but the statement on the closing credits saying the crimes seen during the movie were based on actual police reports won’t do much for the Seattle tourist industry.

ON A CLEAR DAY had its premiere at Sundance but could have done with a minor adjustment prior to viewing – the inclusion of subtitles. Having lived in Scotland my entire life the dialogue was easy to follow but I can imagine American audiences scratching their heads in dismay and wondering what’s going on. Billed as this year’s FULL MONTY, the tale concerns Frank (Peter Mullan), who was recently made redundant and is looking to swim the English Channel to conquer his demons (his son drowned 20 years previously). The formulaic working-class-triumph-over-adversity story line may be recognizable, but this is a movie driven by performances. Mullan plays Frank tenderly and Billy Boyd supplies much needed comedy as he tries to throw off the shackles of the Shire.

The chaotic environment of a tabloid newsroom is exposed in Mary McGuckian’s RAG TALE. The British press is notorious for being merciless and McGuckian captures this feeling perfectly. Unfortunately, it’s about the only thing she does do right. A frenetic shooting style with the camera constantly thrashing about and the film stock changing from black and white to colour is not only distracting but also unnecessary. She may be trying to convey the craziness of the surroundings but it could be easily done through the acting rather than fit-inducing cinematography. The Editor of ‘The Rag’ (possibly the worst fake title for a publication ever) is having an affair with his boss’ wife, and in the office bitching and backstabbing is rife. The plot is poor and dialogue allegedly improvised, ensuring that it’s a disaster from start to finish.

The New Directors Award went to Mike Mills for his debut full-length feature THUMBSUCKER. Mills is no stranger to Edinburgh having shown his short film “The Architecture of Renaissance” here to critical acclaim six years ago. THUMBSUCKER has some fantastic performances, in particular Lou Pucci and Keanu Reeves in rare comedy mode. Justin Cobb (Pucci) is 17 and still sucks his thumb. He does it because he is afraid of letting his mother down and because he is painfully shy. Diagnosed with ADHD he is prescribed Ritalin, which replaces the thumb. During the movie it becomes clear that every character has some sort of problem, only Justin’s was more obvious to the outside world. His parents, teachers, friends and orthodontist (Reeves) are all deeply flawed so what chance does Justin have for a “normal” life? Vince Vaughn has been surgically removed from Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller long enough to put in an excellent turn as Mr. Geary, Justin’s debate coach, and Tilda Swinton plays the troubled teen’s mother with the right mixture of caring and neurosis. A cult classic in the making.

Closing night saw a familiar notion – the British gangster film. THE BUSINESS is set in the 80s where greed was good and hair was big. Frankie (Danny Dyer) takes a bag full of money to a family friend in Spain to escape the wrath of his stepfather in south London. The recipient of the package, nightclub owner Charlie (Tamer Hassan) offers Frankie a job as a driver and general flunky. He gladly accepts and is soon catapulted into a life of drugs, guns and girls. The plot may be predictable at times but the performances are great. Dyer and Hassan have great chemistry as partners in crime and their friendship is believable. The undoubted highlight is the soundtrack – classics from Duran Duran, Blondie, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood remind you how great the 80s was for music.

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