Edinburgh International Film Festival 2008

Photo by Helena Smith. Edinburgh International Film Festival jury chairman Danny Huston on June 20th.

Transplanting the Edinburgh International Film Festival to mid-year and divorcing it from the genial chaos of August’s festival season made the EIFF the only game in town this June. It certainly made it easier to network, socialize, and bump into fellow delegates in bars, while the visiting stars and filmmakers were readily spotted out and about. Plus festival patron Sean Connery was in attendance, allowing the sweet sight after a screening of Bernard Rose’s The Kreutzer Sonata of Connery and Danny Huston reminiscing about the filming of John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King.

The program seemed more robust than last year with a broader cross section of material, although the mainstream representation at EIFF continues to feel a little watery. A wide variety of seminars and panel discussions were held, in a worthwhile attempt to get some dialogue going on around the films themselves. I attended a discussion about the state of film criticism that inevitably had a downbeat air due to the current uncertainty about the future – if any – of the profession. The level of hope from the panel that the Internet did not necessarily spell the end of decent criticism sounded good, but Orlando Parfitt from Rotten Tomatoes agreed that his core demographic was teenage boys. Just how much critical analysis are they ever going to be looking for? And will it all be by other teenage boys? Former EIFF director Mark Cousins, generally the smartest commentator in any room he happens to be in, longed for the day when the mighty democracy of online reviewing could wash away the dross from the multiplexes. Be careful what you wish for, Mark.

To the movies: Edinburgh itself was a major player in Death Defying Acts, Gillian Armstrong’s frothy period-piece in which a visiting Harry Houdini gets thrown off his stride by a buxom Scots con-artist in a sequined bra. Guy Pearce borrows Johnny Depp’s vocal patterns to play Houdini, which is a bit off putting; and Catherine Zeta-Jones always has a hard job being wicked. But Saoirse Ronan makes a fine urchin tomboy. In any normal festival she’d be the standout child performance by a mile – but this was not to be the case, of which more later.

Slick Hollywood film making was epitomized by Elegy, which made it look easy. Brad Anderson’s railway thriller Transsiberian showed that a pan-European multi-producer consortium can make a decent stab at the same thing, but the vital spark was missing. With a rare protagonist role for Emily Mortimer, and an all too frequent one for Woody Harrelson as the kind of buffoon who goes around petting Russian police dogs, it’s decent forgettable fun with some fine snowy landscapes.

It felt like a weak year for English-language horror. From the United States, Alex Orr’s micro-budgeted Blood Car showed that enthusiasm and buckets of gore still don’t add up to a style on their own. This kind of Troma-trash now probably belongs on the Internet, where limitations of space force some sharper imagination to be employed. Spread over a larger canvas, Orr simply runs out of steam after 20 minutes, although anyone who remembers Anna Chlumsky at age 11 in My Girl may do a double take when they see her now.

The United Kingdom provided a more authentic jolt of horror depravity courtesy of Mum and Dad, a rummage through Tobe Hooper territory by director Steven Sheil with a full quota of familial monstrosities, vicious disembowelments and good old English xenophobia. The things that Perry Benson got up to with human offal made a few viewers beat a swift exit; and Dido Miles scared me witless as the wickedest stepmother since Hellraiser. Picture what Texas Chainsaw Massacre would have been like if Mrs. Leatherface had popped in to make her husband a nice pot of tea.

Perry Benson is part of Shane Meadows’ repertory company these days and turned up to more genial effect in Somers Town, Meadows’ lightweight delve into life around London’s changing St. Pancras area that picked up the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film. Meadows gave an In Person interview, and as always his enthusiasm for the job poured out in such a rush that his interviewer barely had time for a second question. Meadows is clearly a lightning rod for the talents lurking in the young actors who are drawn to him, but after Dead Man’s Shoes his lighter works feel like a diet of air.

Some pointed sci-fi came from Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, showing impoverished Mexicans performing menial jobs in America via remote control. “The American dream: all the work without the workers,” quips a foreman while satirical news broadcasts play in the background. Paul Verhoeven planted a flag here long ago, but the film is a colorful exercise in middle-budget invention, and Chilean actress Leonor Varela can make a man forget to breathe.

Sci-fi with more blood in its veins was debated in the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, in which director Erik Nelson grabs the tiger that is author Harlan Ellison by the tail and hangs on for dear life. A grouchy, profane live-wire, Ellison’s confrontational approach to his life and art takes no prisoners, but the raw creativity that spills out of him in mock and very real fury leaves you in awe of the man’s mind. Plus, he’s damn funny.

Also hilarious is Phillipe Petit, whose 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers is the subject of James Marsh’s Man on Wire. Justly walking off with the festival’s Audience Award, it penetrates deeply into the human condition via Petit’s irresistible charisma, for which the phrase joie de vivre seems barely sufficient.

EIFF provided me with three very different miracles of moviemaking. One was Red, a gothic neo-western with a towering performance from Brian Cox, which would be a terrific genre piece even without hearing of its tortuous production history. Another was Foster Child, proof of the ability of sedate restrained cinema to comment on real life with acting from Cherry Pie Picache that no words from me can do justice to. And finally The Fall, a magical confection built from architecture, color theory and love of old movies, with a performance from the 10-year-old Romanian Catinca Untaru that may never be bettered for off-center charm.

But the most memorable individual on view at EIFF by a light-year was Klaus Kinski, caught in Jesus Christ Savior during an infamous one-man performance at Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle in 1971. Peter Geyer’s documentary assembles all the available footage of Kinski’s performance and forms the only decent record of the actor’s neglected career of readings and recitals that paralleled his film work. Kinski’s ferocious intensity is carefully directed in what amounts to a piece of performance art, up to and including the bit where he fends off irate members of the audience with the microphone stand and gets into a punch-up. We shall not see his like again.

© 2008 Tim Hayes. All rights reserved.

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