Averaging four-to-five hours’ sleep a night and surviving off caffeine for a week doesn’t sound like much of a holiday, but when it’s the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I proudly sport my panda eyes and end up on first name terms with the staff at Starbucks (other coffee shops are available in Scotland's capital, but not all of them are right outside the cinema).
The world’s longest running film festival is in its 69th year. It could have been blind luck when I picked what I fancied watching, but 2014 felt like EIFF’s strongest programme for a while. With EIFF, there’s usually a handful of films you'll want to add to your DVD shelf. Last year, almost everything I sat through, bleary-eyed, was well above your average cinema fare. James Ward Byrkit’s directorial debut, Coherence, Uberto Passolini’s Still Life, 2014’s best prison drama, We Are Monster, and my favourite of the festival, Jeff Baena’s Life after Beth were just a small number of highlights.
Disclaimers, Terms and Conditions, etc. etc. Like last year, I was up in Edinburgh for a week, as my wallet, and my body clock, can’t hack any longer. This means I couldn't see every big film of the festival (missing out on Back to the Future, accompanied by a live score, is what I’m most gutted about!), but I tried squeezing every last penny out of my delegate pass. This time I stayed in Edinburgh from the 15th to the 22nd June.
Amy (UK/English dialogue/123 min)
Amy Winehouse passed away in 2011. With her second album, Back to Black, selling millions across the globe, Amy was an easy target, belittled by the media, who portrayed her as a crazed, booze-addled drug addict. Asif Kapadia, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Senna, has compiled hours of home videos, concert footage, and interviews with friends, family, and those within the music industry, to give a thorough and respectful portrait of Winehouse.
Whatever your thoughts of Amy Winehouse, Kapadia immediately puts a line straight through them, showing you films of Amy before she was famous, growing up, messing around with friends, and performing at small venues and auditions, trying to get noticed. You’re introduced to a young woman who says it how it is, hates being the centre of attention, and can go from shy to fiery at the click of a finger.
I saw Winehouse perform, middle of the afternoon, at the Isle of Wight Festival in 2005. Seeing her onstage, nervous, apologising because this was the biggest crowd she had performed to, then singing as loud and passionate as her lungs could manage, made me an instant fan. Playing virtually all of Winehouse’s music, showing the lyrics written out on scraps of paper, who fading in-and-out on the screen, Kapadia makes you appreciate how talented she was, not just as a singer, but as a songwriter, a storyteller. Several times during the film, Amy admits to having depression, using music as her way of coping. Kapadia shows how honest Amy’s writing was, no holding back, wondering if this record will sell, she wrote her heartbreak, her jealousy, her regrets all down, accompanying them with a traditional, stuck-in-your head catchy jazz melody.
Critics, fans, people who knew Amy, will be arguing whether Kapadia’s documentary is unbiased. Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, has already given interviews, unhappy with how the family are shown, that they are accused of not giving her the support she needed. When you watch Amy, it’s hard to disagree with Kapadia. During one of many tragic moments, Amy goes to a reclusive island to get clean, inviting only close friends and family. Her father is there, but so is a film crew he has brought along to follow Amy wherever she goes. Amy’s ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, appears, and while you wonder how much of his interview wound up in the documentary, the finger of blame points at him in terms of getting Winehouse hooked on class A drugs, as well as using her as a meal ticket.
As you would expect, Amy is an uncomfortable watch at times. Archive footage early on shows how Winehouse had the sound of great jazz vocalists such as Betty Carter or Dinah Washington; no singers of her generation came close. Later we see the Amy paraded on the news and in newspapers the world over: swaying, mumbling, slurring her words. The scene which brought tears to my eyes was Kapadia’s use of my favourite Winehouse song (in my humble opinion, one of the greatest songs of this century – there’s a reason why Prince sang it at his O2 residency in London), Love is a Losing Game, playing it alongside a montage of photos of Amy, starting off as a beautiful, healthy-looking young woman, then seeing her slim down to next-to-nothing as her drug and alcohol addiction worsens.
Kapadia does not use cheap tricks or cut corners, this is an engrossing, poignant film that gives you a real sense of who Winehouse was, away from the paparazzi and media attention, occasionally making you laugh when you see how casual and straight talking she was (during a TV interview, the journalist compares Winehouse to Dido, suggesting both artists write honest, timeless lyrics. Winehouse is polite enough, but her face says it all). Amy Winehouse was a breath-taking talent, Kapadia doing her every bit of justice.
4 out of 5
Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post-Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream (UK/English dialogue/94 min)
From a tiny flat in Edinburgh, Bob Last and Hilary Morrison set up Fast Product, a record label that would sign critically acclaimed bands Gang of Four, Joy Division, Dead Kennedys, and The Mekons, before breaking into the mainstream with The Human League and their 1981 Christmas number one, Don’t You Want Me.
Writer/director Grant McPhee’s documentary uses interviews from some of the big names in Scotland’s music history to explain how Fast Product, a company set up to give a voice to new, cutting edge talent, ended up reaching across the world.
You can’t help but get caught up in the passion that has gone into this film, McPhee having a genuine love for his subject matter. Everyone he interviews is fired up, explaining everything that went on during Fast Product’s years. It’s an impressive roster including Alan McGee, Bobby Bluebell, Norman Blake and Edwyn Collins to name just a small few.
Fast Product feels like something from a completely different time, distant history; record companies whose priority was putting the music out there, money, making a profit, being miles down the To Do List.
There are some interesting facts and anecdotes in Big Gold Dream. If you thought the best Scottish music from the late-seventies to late eighties came mostly from Glasgow, McPhee makes you think again. Fast Product were a predecessor to Rough Trade – still a record shop when Fast Product was getting all the attention – while Factory Records didn’t even exist.
The trouble with Big Gold Dream is it feels like loads of pats on the back, but not enough content to match. It’s well researched, and you would struggle to find another documentary that gets all the greats from Scotland’s post-punk/indie scene together, but it could easily have been an hour long BBC 4 documentary instead of a ninety-minute long feature.
3 out of 5
Hector (UK/English dialogue/87 min)
Peter Mullan is one of those “what’s his name?” actors; you’ve seen him before, you just can’t remember what in. Mullan is a tragically underrated actor, having played a number of astonishing roles (Tyrannosaur, Channel 4’s Red Riding). Currently taking the lead in BBC 2’s adaptation of Iain Banks’ Stonemouth, hopefully he finally gets the recognition he deserves.
In Hector, Mullan plays the title role, a homeless man making his annual pilgrimage to a London homeless shelter in time for Christmas. On his journey, he tries getting back in touch with his family, with varying degrees of success.
Mullan is both likeable and believable as Hector, the irony being that if he wasn’t this unkempt man sleeping on the streets, you would happily go down the pub with him and chat over a pint. Jake Gavin (who also directs) has come up with a script that does the rare thing of being natural, giving us snapshots of how people interact, whilst holding your attention throughout and occasionally making you laugh. There’s a smart, touching moment when Hector and his brother meet for the first time in fifteen years. Instead of arguing, the brothers carry on as normal, joking with each other; best friends again.
The one scene that felt redundant was Hector explaining how he became homeless. It’s a good minute-long monologue that not only feels out of place, Gavin could easily have got away without it. Otherwise, Hector is a film that gets the mix of warmth and tragedy absolutely right. It’s a sad story, but there’s enough humour and compassion to make you smile and feel less cynical about people.
4 out of 5
It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (Hong Kong/USA/English and Cantonese dialogue/79 min)
Thirty-somethings Ruby (Jamie Chung) and Josh (Bryan Greenberg) meet one night in Hong Kong. There’s chemistry, an attraction, but the timing is all wrong (Josh lets on he’s in a relationship and the night goes into free-fall). A year later, they bump into each other again. Circumstances have changed, but things are still complicated. Are Ruby and Josh willing to shake up their lives, hurt the people they love, so they can be together?
Romantic dramas, that put love and relationships under the microscope, sink or swim depending on the performances of their leads. Thankfully Chung and Greenberg (engaged in real life) are both convincing; you like them after nearly minute on-screen. Writer/director Emily Ting asked her leads to improvise the dialogue, telling them where each scene starts and ends, then letting the cameras roll. Chung and Greenberg both rise to the challenge, the dialogue intelligent and occasionally making you laugh out loud. While questions about love and fidelity have been asked before (Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and its sequels), Ting and her cast put a unique spin on these issues by also discussing Ruby and Josh’s dreams as artists (Ruby wants to be a fashion designer, Josh a novelist), and how life, paying the bills, gets in the way. Watching It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, you want the two of them to get together, but they meet at the wrong points in their lives. If it had been a year-or-two earlier; different story.
Josh Silfen’s handheld visuals capture the flurry, the clash of cultures (Stella and Carlsberg signs opposite traditional stalls and restaurants), as well as the eccentricity of Hong Kong. You’re shown the well-known tourist spots – Victoria Peak getting plenty of screen time – but you also get a clear sense of what living in Hong Kong would be like, how unique and thriving it is.
My one gigantic issue with Ting’s film is the ending, or lack of it. We stop, at a crucial moment, and are left to make up our own minds. Some call it profound, I call it lazy, Ting taking the easy way out.
While It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong might not have as much to say about relationships as the Before films or Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer, it is clever, enjoyable, and bittersweet rather than saccharine.
4 out of 5
Maggie (USA/English dialogue/95 min)
Whenever me and my mates up in Edinburgh mentioned this film, we called it “Arnie versus zombies.” Get any images of Arnold Schwarzenegger cutting down an army of undead with a minigun straight out of your head, Maggie is much more The Walking Dead than Raw Deal.
John Scott 3’s script sees Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) caring for his teenage daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin – the kid from Zombieland grew up!), who has been bitten by a zombie. As Maggie’s health worsens, Wade has to decide what to do when the inevitable happens.
Maggie could easily have been an episode from AMC’s record breaking TV series, it’s that smart and emotional. While much of the film’s praise has gone to Schwarzenegger, the star of the show here is Breslin. When we first meet Maggie, she is terrified, she does not want to die, yet ends up accepting her fate, making the most of the time she has with friends and her father. Tragically, while father and daughter have always been close, their bond gets stronger as Maggie is dying.
While Schwarzenegger is unlikely to get an Oscar nomination out of Maggie, he proves to critics that he can do more than play a dead-behind-the-eyes machine. While Dutch off of Predator wouldn’t be your first choice to play a kind-hearted, non-violent father, Arnie does a respectable job. Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin gives us plenty of close-ups of Schwarzenegger, his expressions, his reactions, whether it’s father and daughter reminiscing, losing themselves, stopping when they crash back down to earth, or hesitating when having to kill his undead neighbours. Wade is a complicated man, struggling with what to do as his child becomes more walking corpse, less flesh and blood, barley keeping it together; with Arnie there is plenty going on behind the eyes.
Considering Maggie had nowhere near the budget of The Walking Dead, the visuals are just as impressive, each frame filled with muted colours, the landscape – fields and crops – dying as well as the humans, but with tiny glimpses of sunlight breaking through the clouds or gaps in the curtains. While the zombies don’t appear all that often (Maggie has nowhere near the body count of Commando), the make-up and the ways they’re dispatched (Arnie pushes a broom handle all the way through a corpse’s neck) are just as gory as you’d expect, plus Maggie’s transformation as she starts to decay – fingers shrivelling, flesh drying up, veins appearing beneath the skin – is horrible to watch.
While you already know how the film will end, Scott 3 doesn’t make things too predictable. Maggie’s final scene is shuffle round in your seat tense then, cleverly, when you realise what is happening, grabs hold of the heartstrings. It’s cleverly written stuff!
Just when you thought the zombie subgenre had been done to death, John Scott 3 and director Henry Hobson come up with something that respects the traditions first set in stone by George A. Romero, but plays with expectations just enough to give us something pleasingly different. It’s an odd thing to say about a zombie film, but Maggie is gentle and heart-breaking, as well as being skilfully made.
4 out of 5
The Marriage of Reason and Squalor (UK/English dialogue/88 min)
Artist Jake Chapman adapts his novel for the small screen, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, into a TV series for Sky Arts, starring Sophie Kennedy Clark as Lydia, a young woman who is given a holiday to a remote island as a wedding gift by her fiancé (Rhys Ifans). Once Lydia sets foot on the island, things get strange. Very strange.
I like a film that turns weird all the way up to eleven, making you try and work out what’s happening (Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko), but the trick is to tease the audience with clues, portions of narrative, to keep them watching, put up with all the craziness that’s going on. Chapman ignores this completely, following one insane scene with another, creating an incoherent mess that pushes your patience.
You can’t fault the visuals, this is a film where every frame looks fantastic in a David Lynch directs a tropical paperback romance kind of way. You have stop motion animation, grotesque make-up, good use of green screen, stock footage, and clear blue beaches that stretch for miles – just some of the numerous ideas.
As far as the performances go, you can’t help but wonder if everyone involved signed a deal where, the more they overact, the more they get paid. I’ve got a lot of time for Ifans, he’s underrated, but as Helmut Mandragorass he’s so off-the-wall it becomes irritating. It’s like watching the A-level drama diva take centre stage and wishing they would stop. I appreciate Kennedy Clark is playing the clichéd flaky English aristocrat, but it’s a thankless role that she can’t do anything with.
The best way to describe The Marriage of Reason and Squalor is it’s like an undergraduate film student was given a giant bucketful of money to go and make a film. The imagination’s there in the visuals, just not in the script. The strangest thing about Reason and Squalor is Chapman clearly thinks it’s more complex than it really is. Not the worst film of this year’s festival, but close.
2 out of 5
Narcopolis (UK/English dialogue/96 min)
A thriller set in the near future where drugs are legal. It’s dark most of the time and there are blazing neon signs in almost every frame. Blade Runner on a budget: sounds good, right?
Narcopolis could have been one of the best films at this year’s festival, and one of the best British thrillers of 2015. Tragically, director and screenwriter Justin Trefgarne’s script throws everything against the wall and, if it doesn’t stick, it gets put back up anyway. Trefgarne could have picked a handful ideas (the consequences of legalising recreational drugs, drugs that make you time travel, how parents unknowingly scar their children, the public image of global companies compared to what happens behind closed doors – just some of the subtle and not-so-subtle subtext in Narcopolis) and developed them, really made the audience think. Instead, so much is going on, so thinly spread, that you quickly stop caring about what’s happening.
Elliot Cowan (Da Vinci’s Demons) makes a decent enough lead, even if Frank Grieves is your seen-it-all-before burnt out cop with an estranged family. The minute James Callis (Battlestar Gallactica) appears onscreen, posh accent, sharp suit and cunning smile, it’s no great surprise when he turns out to be the villain, while Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Tomorrow Never Dies) gets little to do as a by-the-numbers scientist; anyone could have played the role.
Narcopolis’ one saving grace is its visuals, Trefgarne pushing his budget as far as it will go. London streets at nightfall, threatening skies and shimmering skyscrapers. While every scene looks typically murky and brooding, Trefgarne gives a strange beauty to his backgrounds; the usual views of London, but with a near-future, off-world twist.
I got bored with Narcopolis. It traipses along, slick visuals and editing trying to distract you from the glaring problem that scarcely any time or attention was spent on the script, that none of the ideas have been thought through or make any sense. Impressive and talented production marred by a below average – dredging up more than a few science fiction clichés – screenplay.
2 out of 5
The Pyramid Texts (UK/English dialogue/Black and White/98 min)
A man giving a monologue to the camera for well over ninety minutes doesn’t sound like something you would happily hand your money over to go and see, but the debut film from The Shammasian Brothers (Ludwig and Paul) is something special.
James Cosmo (another actor who has never received the attention he deserves) plays retired boxer Ray. Setting up a video camera in his gym, he discusses his life, his thoughts, his regrets; the footage meant for his estranged son.
There are a small number of films where you can’t imagine anyone else in the role, anyone doing a performance equally as good. Cosmo does just that in The Pyramid Texts. He deserves awards recognition for his portrayal of Ray, flitting between passion, anger, and tear-jerking regret and being totally believable. This is a father opening up to his son, apologising; you’re engaged from the second Cosmo appears onscreen, right up to the end.
The cinematography is mostly close-ups, Cosmo staring into the camera. Early on Ray explains why he’s recording himself instead of writing a letter: you can see his face, hear the delivery of his words – there is no confusion over what he is saying, what he means. Cosmo’s expressions, his stare, all just as impressive as his dialogue. Shot entirely in black-and-white, this brings extra gravitas to Cosmo’s words. Thanks to some well set up lighting, we see all the lines on his face; Ray has been through the wars, bottled up his thoughts and feelings for years, and finally they all come spilling out.
Originally a stage play, BAFTA Award-winning writer Geoff Thompson’s adaptation is naturalistic, draws you in and, most impressive of all, it’s subtle. The dialogue is emotional, but doesn’t lay it on thick. While Ray is recounting his life, confessing his sins, there’s still a lot that he holds back, Cosmo’s expressions, his gaze, filling in the blanks.
My one and only issue with The Pyramid Texts is the last couple of minutes. Considering how reigned in the rest of the film is, the twist, the real reason why Ray is making this video, is handled with all the consideration of a sledgehammer. You could have had Ray switch off the camera and walk out of the gym; audiences would still have got the message. The film doesn’t come off the rails, but it’s a tiny bit jarring compared to how understated and exceptional the other ninety-odd minutes are: Shakespeare with everyday dialogue.
For the most part, The Shammasian Brothers’ first feature film is a powerful and moving powerhouse; definitely one of the best of this year’s festival.
4 out of 5
Therapy for a Vampire (Austria/Switzerland/German dialogue with English subtitles/87 min)
Vampires used to live in far-off, hard-to-pronounce European countries, wealthy aristocrats living in isolation. Now, thanks to Twilight, they’re slicked with hair gel and glow like disco balls when they step in the sun.
David Reuhm’s Therapy for a Vampire is both a homage to, as well as taking the piss out of, the lavish bloodsucker films starring Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. The cinematography is gorgeous; it’s as if Tim Burton had directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula rather than Francis Ford Coppola; a Victorian costume drama with the German impressionism of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.
You can tell all the actors had fun during filming; there’s no scale on earth that can measure how camp the performances are here. Plenty of laughs come from how over-the-top Tobias Moretti and Jeanette Hain (as Count and Countess von Kösznöm) are whenever they’re onscreen.
Therapy for a Vampire is a lot of fun, at no point will you be fidgeting, or glancing at your watch. While there is minute-after-minute of visual gags that will make you smile and laugh-out-loud, you walk away feeling that Reuhm could have done more, really gone for the jugular (excuse the pun). Interview with the Vampire, for instance, takes itself so seriously, it’s begging to have the mickey mercilessly taken out of it. There are a couple of inventive jokes – fountains of blood spray across the screen as Countess von Kösznöm chomps into a victim, then realises she’s hardly drank anything – you just wish the laughs were always that smart.
3 out of 5