The last two days of the 64th Edinburgh International Film Festival proved to be a mixed bag, with some possible future classics and a few duds rubbing shoulders with more rarities from the archives. Eleven films come under our scrutiny in this final batch of mini-reviews…
While documentaries following both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been in abundance these past few years, there hasn’t been anything definitive made about the soldiers and their experiences. Until Restrepo.
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington spent a year following the US Second Platoon and their tour in the Afghanistan Korengal Valley, one of the deadliest areas in the country.
The footage from the war zone is blistering and at times terrifying, bullets hurtle past the camera hundred times a second. Some might argue that these scenes are limited, but it would be in poor taste to show men dying on the battlefield and the way it is handled hits the mark perfectly.
While the scenes of the soldiers attempting to curb their boredom and to relax by dancing to cheesy pop music is touching and at points humorous, the most intriguing scenes involve the meetings between the US army leaders and the Afghanistan elders. These exchanges manage to highlight further complications without really pushing a political angle.
It’s refreshing and a credit to the documentary filmmakers that they chose not to pick a ‘right or wrong’ angle for the war, simply focusing on the soldiers themselves. Interviews discussing various gun fights and fallen comrades capture the human side of these brave men and the real affects of war whether you believe in it or not. Scenes from mobile phones are spliced between the on-site footage and the recorded interviews adding further realism and weight to the characters.
This is a startling insight into fighting on the frontline without ever feeling the need to highlight the political reasons behind the war. Restrepo shows it all.
Perhaps one of the greatest film at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (RB)
The Dry Land
Ryan O’Nan is James, an army veteran heading back home to small town Texas and his wife Sarah (America Ferrera). From the moment he returns, the psychological effects of his tour of the war zone begins to take it’s toll.
The Dry Land is nothing short of a disaster. James’ paranoia over the close friendship between his wife and best buddy Michael, played by Jason Ritter, feels extremely similar to Brothers released earlier this year. This is only one of the familiar plot points that rear their ugly faces in a cliched coming- home-from-war drama.
Although it is nice to see Ferrera step out from the Ugly Betty braces and glasses, there is little to like about any of the characters in this film. Even O’Nan, the man we are supposed to feel sorry for, is a constant irritant with no redeeming qualities.
In what should really be a glossed over Channing Tatum vehicle, director Ryan Piers Williams tries to give the film an Indie vibe, throwing in a cheeky breast and a pointless sex scene in an attempt to perhaps be ‘edgy’. When a nurse in the military hospital discovers a paraplegic has shit himself, (surely a regular occurrence, right?) she acts as shocked as if the defecation had taken place directly on her face. This shows a complete lack of research on the writer’s part.
The “if you have been affected by any issues in the film” spiel which appears during the end credits is another poor attempt to drive the point home pretty much summing up the whole film.
How this won the Best International Feature award is beyond me. â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (RB)
Girl With Black Balloons
At a mere hour in length, this manages to create a fascinating portrait of an unknown artist in her twilight years, residing in New York’s infamous rock ˜n’ roll paragon, the Chelsea Hotel.
Dutch director Corinne van der Borch discovers Bettina Bashyi while staying there and films her over the course of three years as she becomes acquainted with both the woman herself and her extraordinary artwork.
Bettina is a remarkable woman whose work needs more exposure, but ultimately this is a study of eccentricity without being judgmental and of the frailty and loneliness which goes hand-in-hand with her chosen lifestyle (she sleeps propped up in a deckchair in a room strewn with art and storage boxes, no bigger than a cupboard).
Although it follows a linear structure the unorthodox, and often chaotic, manner in which Bettina lives means filming can be interrupted for weeks and as a result we see mere snapshots of this three-year period.
As sparse as the film can be, it does create a rounded and ultimately warm portrait of one of New York’s great undiscovered characters, who has more spark and vitality than many half her age. â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (RM)
Designed to be an emotional comedy/drama to tug at the heartstrings of the gullible everywhere, EIFF closing film Third Star is instead a dull and half-hearted tale which assumes that its subject matter, rather than a well executed script, is enough to have its audience welling up at every available opportunity.
When James (Benedict Cumberbatch) discovers he’s dying from cancer, he asks his friends Miles (Feild), Davy (Burke) and Bill (Robertson) to go with him to Barafundle Bay for one last holiday before the disease gets the better of him. Encountering odd characters along the way, the trip becomes an opportunity for the gang to find out who they really are, while James gets increasingly sick and the holiday becomes ever more dangerous for his health.
Competently directed by Hattie Dalton, who moves her actors around the countryside well enough but doesn’t have much to work with when it comes to interesting camera angles, this is as safe a film as one could hope for about a subject that has been covered many times before.
There’s nothing original here, except for a cameo by Hugh Bonneville as a beachcomber searching for a rare batch of Darth Vader toys, but that passes too quickly to be of much help to proceedings.
As noted above, this will inevitably wring the odd tear from unsuspecting eyes, but that’s its mission, its raison d’etre: there will always be a section of the audience willing to give in to the manipulation offered up here, but look beyond surface for more than a few seconds and you’ll find nothing underneath. â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (JM)
Proof that anyone can make a film with access to rudimentary equipment at their disposal. It doesn’t mean it will be any good.
Director Steve Sale uses a combination of mobile phone, HD cam and gimmickry to create this rough and ready take on the personality documentary so favoured by everyone of late; from the mastery of Moore and Theroux to the sexual failures of Chris Waitt and, the inspiration for the bad riffing of the title here, Morgan Spurlock’s burger binge odyssey.
His ‘message’ really is nothing beyond pondering whether he could become a superhero. You have to give Sale credit for going out there and actually getting this made, and for making a prat of himself on camera. The problem is that Spurlock et al are trying to make a point through use of gimmicks. Here, there is no point other than ˜wouldn’t it be a laugh to stick on a stupid costume’.
There’s an interesting subculture in the ˜real world superheroes’ angle waiting to be uncovered and investigated but here it’s only of secondary concern to wilful misinterpretation of everything anyone says and inane stunts. Its general lack of purpose in conjunction with its shocking lack of originality and general predictability gives this the feel of a comedy caper you might see on Saturday morning kid’s telly.
The odd light does shine through in the form of rare social insight such as tailing Florida-based ˜superhero’ Master Legend, but otherwise this seems a self-indulgent excuse for the filmmaker to jaunt from city-to-city, promoting bands and himself, without any real consideration of theme.
You’ll believe a man can try. â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (RM)
C’est DÃ©jÃ L’Ã©tÃ©
This defiantly arthouse Belgian film from Dutch director Martijn Maria Smits scrutinises the dealings of a family affected by deprivation and unemployment in an industrial town, seemingly devoid of a palette outside of grey (which somewhat flies against the seasonal promise of the title’s literal English translation of ˜It’s Already Summer’).
The father of the family is unemployed, the mother absent, the teenage daughter already with child and with partner in prison, while the young son is veering towards adolescent rebellion and troublemaking.
It’s certainly grim, there’s no question of that. The occasional shards of light which permeate are usually bared through clenched teeth. However, it’s a perceptive take on the current economic situation, framing itself as it does on a small section of a small community.
It’s a nice looking film despite the grimness in much the same way as Red Road made high rises look positively sculptural. The performances are compelling and nicely nuanced by a largely non-professional cast. It’s certainly a slow-burn piece of work and puts character and situation to the foreground, rather than plot.
It’s precisely this ethos that makes the relatively overblown act which occurs at the conclusion seem all the more out of place. There are portents which mean it isn’t entirely ill-fitting, but it does stick out a bit.
You’re not going to leave this with a smile, but it’s a piece of work which tackles a broad issue with an intense focus and keen eye for detail. â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (RM)
The eponymous female is a 40 year old orang-utan residing in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and the focus of Nicolas Philibert’s (ÃŠtre Et Avoir) latest documentary.
Well, technically she is. The camera stays focused on her through the glass of her enclosure, positing us very much as we would be were we to visit the zoo. There is no overdubbed narration to speak of. All audio is recorded in situ and is a mix of overheard conversations from visitors and contextual stuff from the keepers.
As such, the visuals are pretty similar throughout – they focus on NÃ©nette and her son and we perceive every action, the apes unaware they’re the subject of a documentary. The spoken words we hear rarely refer directly to the action onscreen and it’s slightly disorientating for a while. It’s as if watching two disparate elements at once, which never quite sync.
Once this hurdle can be overcome, it’s a beautiful little character study of a subject whose own voice is never aired and a scarily voyeuristic peep into the lives of the visitors through elements of snatched conversations. â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (RM)
The Robber (Der RÃ¤uber)
This punchy Austrian thriller from director Benjamin Heisenberg, adapted from the novel by Martin Prinz, is everything you want it to be and a real lesson for Hollywood in how to craft something that manages to be both gripping and artful.
Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust) is recently released from prison and an aspiring marathon runner “ who also happens to quite enjoy knocking off banks. His motives are never given but that’s part of the brilliance.
It’s based on a true story from the 1980s, but updated to a contemporary setting, without relying on modern technology as a deus ex machina to spur the plot on.
In terms of direction the heists themselves and ensuing foot-chases through Vienna are nigh-on perfectly handled. There is more to it than all that through his rekindled relationship with his former girlfriend, but it’s the scenes of flat-out pounding the streets (without the gimmicky need for parkour acrobats) that sets this apart.
It develops into a manhunt across the Austrian countryside and could be compared the The Fugitive, if Richard Kimble a) was guilty and b) had an aptitude for endurance running.
Heisenberg is definitely marked out as ˜one to watch’ and it confirms the suspicion that the Germanic countries may well be the hotbed of European talent in the action-thriller genre. â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (RM)
This is a charming, heartfelt comedy from Eagle vs. Shark and sometime Flight of the Concords director Taika Waititi. What has become the trademark New Zealand comedy style is writ large throughout this. Its deadpan leanings make even the simplest of lines ring out as a result of delivery alone.
It’s 1984 and Boy is our lead character, somewhere in remote NZ, whose dead mother and imprisoned father mean he’s de facto guardian of his siblings when his grandmother has to leave town for a while.
Boy is a Michael Jackson-obsessive who creates elaborate fantasies to explain away the reasons for his father’s absence “ both to himself and others. His illusions are shattered when his father returns to retrieve a hoard of money buried somewhere near the family home.
At first Boy is enamoured with his rebellious pater (played with insecure brilliance by director Waititi) but soon realises things haven’t changed much and it slowly dawns on him that his father isn’t the man of his dreams but rather a selfish, mercurial bully.
It sounds like it could be the set-up for sentimental mush but Waititi never lets this get bogged down or waver for too long. When it is emotional, it’s positively stirring but there’s enough anarchic energy and clever use of fantasy sequences to keep the comedy ticking over too.
It might be set in the 80s but it rarely resorts to cheap nostalgic clichÃ©s. The children’s performances are fantastic and really hold the film together but it’s Waititi’s performance and confident directorial style that stick in the memory.
Although broadly a comedy, be equally as prepared to shed a tear as crack a smile. â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜… (RM)
Retrospective: The Squeeze & The Hard Way
Described by Niall Greig Fulton, the head programmer for the EIFF’s Retrospective season, as perhaps the grittiest British thriller ever made, just before he went on to state that its lack of availability on DVD is criminal, it’s fair to say that expectations were high for this screening of Michael Apted’s The Squeeze.
Adapted from John Tucker’s novel for the screen by Leon Griffiths, the man who created and wrote many of the finest episodes of British TV classic Minder, the opening moments of the film introduce us to down-at-heel private eye, Jim Naboth (Stacy Keach), fresh out of a clinic to treat his alcoholism. We also meet his sidekick, Teddy, played by Freddie Starr. Yes, that Freddie Starr. Best known at the time as an impressionist, here he complements Keach perfectly as his foil, never straying into comedy stereotype and making it curious that he didn’t pursue the dramatic side of the entertainment industry.
From here we’re thrown into a plot involving the kidnap of Naboth’s ex-wife, Jill (Carol White) and daughter from her new husband, Foreman (Edward Fox), and attempt to rescue them from Vic (Stephen Boyd) and his cronies, most notably Keith (David Hemmings).
Keach is well cast as Naboth, complete with a pretty spot-on English accent, and it’s great to see him giving in to everything thrown at him with apparent grace: at various points he’s punched, kicked, thrown down flights of stairs, beaten with a baseball bat, stripped naked, chased (while still naked) along a busy street and thrown onto the front of a car before being made to walk through crowds dressed in boxer shorts.
Referencing TV’s The Sweeney in its gritty nature, smoky bars and violence, and foreshadowing Minder in its neat line in London humour, The Squeeze is a much overlooked slice of British film drama which manages to carve its own niche, some stark scenes pushing the boundaries of taste while still remaining eminently watchable. Well deserving of rediscovery on DVD, here’s hoping some enterprising label decides to search out the rights and get a few of those involved “ Keach, Starr and Apted? – for a commentary.
The final Retrospective feature I managed to attend was 1979’s The Hard Way, starring Patrick McGoohan and Lee Van Cleef. As with many films in this season, this wasn’t one I was aware of, despite being something of a fan of McGoohan in his role as John Drake and Number Six in Danger Man and The Prisoner respectively.
McGoohan is hitman John Connor, determined to remove himself from the business and retire to his cottage in rural Ireland. Fate has other plans however, and Connor is soon approached by Lee Van Cleef’s McNeil to carry out one last job for the sum of £40,000.
It’s a simple enough set-up for this bleak and deliberately joyless film, the pleasure coming from seeing the stars perform without being distracted by a director trying to make it something it isn’t with pyrotechnics or flashy camera shots. Watching McGoohan in real, dingy locations is a sight to behold, a far cry from the glossy fantasy of his TV shows and it would have been interesting to see him take the lead in a 1980s series based on the character, similar to the way Edward Woodward’s Callan was semi-resurrected for The Equalizer.
Available on DVD in the UK, The Hard Way may not be quite as rare as other titles in the Retrospective, but the opportunity to see it on a cinema screen again is probably highly unlikely.
8½ Foundation launch
Did you know that 8½ is your film birthday? According to actress Tilda Swinton, when her son was 8½ he asked his mum what people dreamt of before films were invented. Swinton wrote a letter in response to this and showed it to film critic Mark Cousins, who in turn wrote a letter to himself at age 8½ which told him how much cinema would mean to his future self.
Sunday saw the official launch of the 8½ Foundation at the Filmhouse, an organisation which celebrates takes the age as its own and asks that when children reach 8½ they can write a letter to state why they’d like to receive free DVDs from the four corners of the film world.
At around 11am, Swinton and Cousins led a flashmob outside the cinema which saw them perform a version of a Laurel & Hardy dance with an assembled throng, before the pair headed indoors to create a party atmosphere for those who came along to see what the fuss was all about.
Clearly enthusiastic about the idea, both Swinton and Cousins are fine ambassasdors for film, and its encouraging that someone is doing something to fight against the constant barrage of information which tells us we should be watching the shiniest and newest films at the multiplex rather than classics from around the globe. (JM)
Richard Bodsworth (RB)
Ross Maclean (RM)
Jonathan Melville (JM)