Our Man in Edinburgh: EIFF 2013 Round-Up

“What’s the best thing you saw at the festival?” The question everyone seems to want answered in the reflective, hangover days following Edinburgh’s 67th celebration of cinema. “The sun”, has been my go-to, snarky response. Not only because it nimbly dodges what is a brain-melting inquiry after twelve intense days of screenings, but because, even for the last two weeks in June, this year’s EIFF was unseasonably warm.

I only caught the miraculous climate in small doses, of course. Jetting between Edinburgh’s quaint, independent Filmhouse cinema and the more industrial, hangar complex of the Fountain Park Cineworld. Or when devouring a poorly-arranged sandwich, tilled-up by some tired-looking newsagent between the languid, nostalgic drama playing at 11:10 and the languid, nostalgic drama playing at 1:05. I kid. Sometimes the second one didn’t start until 2.00.

In actuality, there were a few “bests” at the festival, which, with its 146 feature screenings from 53 countries, buried its gems deep. Gems not glinting in the sun, but between the sun; unearthed in darkened rooms where flickering images lit up the walls. To give you a taste of the discovery process, I hereby present a breathless overview of the 47 films I caught (plus two others). By prising apart this adventure in celluloid overdose, I’ve tried to reveal the motifs that permeated this year’s offerings. An effort to review (n.), as well as review (vb.).

Opening Night
So let’s begin at the end, where the final film I saw just so happened to be the festival’s first. Breathe In, which served as the opening night gala premiere, is a work that heavily mimics in both style and tone, director Drake Doremus’ last feature Like Crazy. Your appreciation or irritation for that film will therefore likely impact on your enjoyment of this floaty, sentimental drama about a directionless British study-abroad student (Felicity Jones) falling for the bohemian, Cello-playing American father of her host family (Guy Pearce). I found it rather graceful despite its well-trod narrative of forbidden love, but your mileage may vary.

Quarter-life Crises
Jones’ wishy-washy Breathe In character found good company at EIFF, where lost twenty-somethings were in abundance. Noah Baumbach put aside the teeth-grinding pretentiousness of his last female-led film, Margot at the Wedding, to create the delightfully upbeat Frances Ha. Mumblecore graduate Greta Gerwig turns New York into her playground in this charming, monochromatic comedy of bumbling singletons and stilted maturity. Similarly, from Germany, Oh Boy shares the black and white cinematography and sketch-like structure of Baumbach’s film, but tacks a rather more melancholic conclusion to its otherwise funny day-from-hell tale.

Elsewhere, a twenty-something Canadian old soul was stunting his life by taking up residence in a retirement home (Old Stock - light, enjoyable, if a little too neatly tied up), while a twenty-something Scottish old soul was fighting to preserve traditional folk songs before the elder generation takes them to their graves (Blackbird - sensitive, confident filmmaking with a superb lead performance from Andrew Rothney). Then there was London-based duo ‘Jones’ tackling both quarter- and mid-life crises in their exceedingly dry, quirky, but triumphant black comedy Everyone’s Going to Die; Kyle Patrick Alvarez bringing David Sedaris’ story of post-educational class superiority and exposed prejudices to the screen in the intelligent C.O.G.; while in Tunisia, Die Welt showed us what real hardship does to those trapped young adults looking for escape and a better life.

Loss & Reminiscence
Loss was another recurring theme, casting its dark shadow over a series of dramatic works from all over the globe. Mister John centres on a fine performance from Aiden Gillen, in the tonally solemn, spacious story of a man attending his brother’s funeral in Singapore. Comparably serene, though not without interest, Chad Hartigan’s neatly constructed This is Martin Bonner portraits a man whose seemingly downbeat situation hasn’t damaged his friendly and helpful demeanour – a refreshing film that says, “it’s nice to be nice”.

In Beijing Flickers, from China, the loss is not just of happiness (literally; a dog with that name goes missing), but also of speech, after the main character chomps his way through a glass in the film’s most arresting early scene. Then there was loss of innocence in Call Girl, a gripping, exquisitely styled Swedish work, revealing the true-life cover-up of a 1970s organised prostitution ring and the high-level politicians who acquired their services.

Also stealing from the ‘70s in terms of its yellowing, scratched-print cinematography, Il Futuro by Turistas director Alicia Scherson, is most notable for its fine Rutger Hauer performance. Playing Maciste, an old movie star who has lost his sight, Hauer’s romantic relationship with Manuela Martelli’s Bianca takes such precedence in the more compelling second half, that the film entirely loses track of its scheming first act setup. Finally, back in the UK, The Sea finds Ciarán Hinds returning to his childhood summer residence, where he mourns the recent loss of his wife and relives a tumultuous childhood memory in this measured, well-acted but ultimately televisual dual narrative.

The Sea
Along with The Sea, the briny depths were a mainstay in this year’s EIFF selection, and not just in the wistful, shore-gazing of lonely souls, but in the violent, unpredictable and menacing nature of the waves themselves. One such work, and eventual winner of the prestigious Michael Powell Award, the intense, stunning and disorienting Leviathan. This sensory documentary places us inside and outside a North Atlantic fishing trawler, capturing haunting images from incredible vantage points. With no introductions or interviews, just long, hypnotic takes and an overwhelming sound mix that fills the room, it was one of the festival’s most unique and involving experiences.

So too, For Those in Peril, the story of Aaron, a sole survivor who returns after a fishing accident that killed four people including his brother, only to be vilified by his small town. Director Paul Wright has crafted a dark, swirling tale of traumatic delusion that also possesses a Malick-inspired eye for visual beauty and fantastic performances from all involved. A watery churn and swell could also be found in two films I didn’t see: The Deep, an Icelandic drama about a fisherman fighting to survive after his boat capsizes, was, by all accounts, very impressive. And EIFF Audience Award winner Fire in the Night, which captivatingly documents the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig disaster in the North Sea.

Teen Flicks
From ocean waves to crime waves, movies for the teen crowd came no bigger than Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, receiving its UK premiere at EIFF. Though expectations were high, this headline-ripped jaunt through the homes of Hollywood’s young and famous ends up a flat, repetitive video-blog of four obnoxiously rich teens who robbed their way to infamy. Touching on some interesting questions surrounding modern celebrity culture and post-internet privacy, Coppola’s glossy picture is too glorifying to really deal with the issues. More of a hastily-snapped selfie, than a composed portrait. Faring better, You and Me Forever is a peppy, well-shot Danish film dealing in the typical adolescent turmoil of friendship and sex. With solid performances from its teen cast and some relatable story points, the focus on two female best friends who diverge is enjoyable, but offers few cinematic revelations. Like Ghost World without the bite.

Then there was Struck by Lightning, written by and starring Glee’s Chris Colfer. Though trading heavily in high school stereotypes, his story of a determined young writer blackmailing class members into contributing to his college-application-motivated literary journal, is both fun and sharply penned. So while it lacks a stand-out single moment, the film is peppered with interesting parental dynamics (Allison Janney, excellent as always) and witty lines. Six Acts, on the other hand, is a much more demanding watch. Hailing from Israel, it centres on concerns of self-confidence, reputation and sexual abuse. This dark teen tale puts both genders at fault, and though circular by nature (a girl is willingly and unwillingly taken advantage of six times), it ends on a strong, ambiguous note that will keep you pondering after the credits roll.

Finding suitable fare for younger audiences was more difficult, but EIFF did provide an advance preview of Pixar’s Monsters University for the little ones. I was hesitant of this prequel to the much-loved Monsters Inc., so it was with great relief that it turned out to be funny, knowing and perfectly paced. Introducing new characters while putting fun twists on the old ones (Steve Buscemi’s Randall is a joy), it lacks the heart of Inc. but makes up for it in laughs. Though not outdoing the original, it doesn’t ‘Sulley’ the memory of it, either. (Yes, the jokes in the film are better than that.) And while not a film made for young children, What Maisie Knew is told from the perspective of one. This heartfelt work puts us in the tiny shoes of Maisie, a child whose parents are going through divorce proceedings, battling for custody, and passing her back and forth like a parcel. With a wonderful performance by young Onata Aprile as the lead, in its best moments it manages to beam joy through the marital gloom.

UK Films
Less joyous, this year’s ‘Secret Movie’ – a simultaneous screening at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse and Cineworld locations, the title of which is kept under wraps. Speculation circulated that it might be Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, hot off its controversial showing at Cannes. Or possibly Filth, the latest scuzzy Irvine Welsh adaptation. But the pendulum of fate ended up swinging as far in the opposite direction as it could go, with About Time, the new film by Richard Curtis. It’s a mess, frankly. A bizarre mash-up of his previous slushy, heartstring fondling, mixed with a mind-bendingly poor time travel narrative; its story finds Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), newly endowed with the ability to travel backwards in time, using that power to help foster a romance with Mary (Rachel McAdams). The sci-fi element is so incomprehensibly executed that I fear the intention is to trip your brain fuses early on so as to prevent any deep thought. But there are a few laughs (Tom Hollander provides), plus a heavy-handed yet well-intentioned life lesson to be delivered amidst the saccharine music montages and continuum-breaking plot. Paradoxes Actually.

UK comedies had a tough time in general at EIFF. Svengali, based on a YouTube web series, has clueless Welsh music fan and aspiring band manager, Dixie (writer Johnny Owen), moving to London to pursue his dream of blasting an unsigned act into the musical stratosphere. Packed with overplayed, oddball characters (Martin Freeman, especially, must be doing someone a huge favour) and a distinct lack of big laughs, it is way too safe to make any kind of impression. On the flip-side, We Are the Freaks tries so, so hard to be rebellious and smash the genre that it simply comes off as hollow and dislikeable. Though it ventures some visually interesting scenes early on, this tale of three friends and one wild night soon devolves into an unfunny, try-hard comedy that thinks it’ll shock but actually just bores.

Better, but not exactly in the same category, A Long Way from Home held its own in the UK romantic drama stakes. Idly putting long-time husband James Fox through the emotional ringer, his retirement in the South of France is disrupted by a cute, engaged young lady staying nearby (Natalie Dormer). The dialogue may be a little stagey and it struggles to close the narrative out, but its heart, and performances from Fox and Brenda Fricker as his blustery, dedicated wife, are in the right place. Jumping genre one more time, UK crime thriller uwantme2killhim? may be based on a true story of teenage murder, but hinging on a plot turn that’s very guessable after five minutes simply made it a tiresome, increasingly-maddening watch.

Thriller / Horror
Heading outside the UK for more effective thrills, Chilean director Sebastián Silva brings an oppressive, untrustworthy atmosphere to the striking Magic Magic. As Michael Cera creeps and Juno Temple goes slowly crazy during a visit to remote South America, the ever-mounting tension winds to a bold finale. A genuinely unpredictable delight. From the US, The East stirred up eco-terrorism and undercover spy thriller in a stylish concoction that takes itself a little too seriously. Writer and star Brit Marling manages to inject a little interest into the murky world of corporate responsibility, but a scene of Toby Kebbell playing the piano proves the highlight.

Then Saw and Insidious director James Wan was up to his old tricks in The Conjuring, a by-the-numbers scare-fest that’s plenty of fun but entirely forgettable. Offering a few jumps but no real surprises, this tale of demonic possession, exorcisms, mirror shocks and dead people in linen nightwear, is firmly one for the date-night crowd.

While Wan’s film is supposedly based on a true story, there were plenty of real life tales to catch in the festival’s many documentaries. Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s probing look at storytelling, family histories and the nature of documentary, told through the prism of her own confused parentage, is a beautifully constructed piece that only further cements her position as a brave new filmmaker. Fun, but offering less depth, The Great Hip Hop Hoax wittily pulls the curtain back on two Scottish rappers who pretended to be Americans and fooled the entire music industry into a record contract.

Further hoaxes are perpetrated in Morgan Matthews’ Shooting Bigfoot, about passionate Sasquatch hunters residing in the American heartland. A consistently laugh-out-loud experience that’s more than a little Louis Theroux in tone, I couldn’t decide if these crazy characters were being exploited, but that never spoiled my enjoyment. Mark Cousins brought his charming A Story of Children and Film to EIFF, a documentary about the depiction of children in cinema that will be stylistically familiar to those who saw his The Story of Film. And at the opposite end of the age spectrum, the lively and lonely stories of three elderly gay men were the focus of Before You Know It, a sweet, playful, and sometimes sad documentary that only lacked a through-line to tie it all together.

Other festival docs had more defined polemical motives. The incredibly heart-wrenching I Am Breathing depicts the final months of Neil Platt, a 34-year-old father of one, who contracts Motor Neurone Disease. Paralysed from the neck down, this simple, family-advocated documentary gives a first-hand impression of Neil’s perseverance and good humour, even as he nears his end. Also with its fist in the air, the new Alex Gibney film We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, seeks to tease out the truth behind Julian Assange’s mysterious organisation, in much the same way he did with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It’s a meticulous, if overlong, look at how the internet has disrupted the act of secrecy, and contains a genuinely frightening shot of Assange dancing.

Less well known - its subject written out of French cinema history entirely - the short, tidy documentary Natan tries to restore Pathé studio owner and advancer of film technology, Bernard Natan, to the history books. It might just succeed too, although a ten-minute final sequence focussing on his possible career in early film pornography is most likely what you’ll come away remembering.

Winner of the International Feature Film Competition, A World Not Ours is a personal story of identity and refugee life in Ein el-Helweh, Lebanon. It depicts its subjects well, and is blessedly good natured despite its somewhat downbeat themes. But filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel, who grew up in Lebanon but now travels from his home in Belgium, is too far removed when injecting his own thoughts about belonging. Finally, and top of the docs for my money, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction frames the prolific screen actor in artsy black and white, then invites friends, films, anecdotes and a whole bunch of crooning to join him. A joy just to be in the company of, Sophie Huber’s film will have you grinning from the Old West to Paris, Texas.

And the Rest...
Cats featured in two titles at this year’s festival, but those furry felines weren’t to be found in either. A.C.A.B. All Cats Are Brilliant, a character piece set in modern Greece, mixes its politics with a raw spectrum of human emotion. All the best scenes, however, are those of joy, as its social activist and part-time artist subject, Electra, discusses life with the young boy she babysits, and dances wildly to forget herself. Then from Japan, I Catch a Terrible Cat played its long, talkie, and meticulously-framed scenes out over an ultimately dull 130 minutes, as a host of characters incessantly discussed their various relationships, crushes, jealousies and infatuations. I caught a quick snooze, instead.

Also, two films about traffic police: Poland’s Traffic Department and, from Hong Kong, Motorway. In the first, corruption runs rampant and bribes are the norm, until an internal investigation by one officer turns sour. Director Wojciech Smarzowski utilises an interesting combination of CCTV, on-board car cameras and a snappy editing style to keep the pace up in his gritty, occasionally violent, but conclusively unsatisfying film. The second has a Fast & Furious vibe, as a pro-driving cop battles to take down criminals equally skilled behind the wheel. It’s over-baked and stuffed with clichés (eager, young cop paired with old-timer who’s a few months from retirement), but guilty fun all the same. For pace, though, nothing beat 7 Boxes, a smart and expertly-plotted action thriller about marketplace wheelbarrow labourers in Paraguay. With great chase sequences and a continually twisting narrative, it was a breathless surprise amidst the inert, festival-appropriate works.

Finally, a German Western in the shape of Gold, which finds a small band of prospecting foreigners travelling the long, dangerous road up to Klondike Valley, Canada, in search of their fortune. Borrowing from the tone of Meek’s Cutoff, this is a stark, tough and restrained film that, at times, trots a little slowly. But it’s enjoyable all the same, pitching its conclusion at exactly the right moment. And I wouldn’t even attempt to categorise Shane Carruth’s sophomore feature, Upstream Color. Taking the obtuse nature of his debut Primer, and twisting it into a near impenetrable, sensory exploration of continuous life cycles that pass through flora and fauna, the film is an impressive and demanding watch, but so exquisitely shot that you’ll stick with it, entranced throughout.

So there you have it, a rather exhausting dash through 47 of this year’s EIFF selection. Not necessarily the best or worst, just the ones I got to see - which, despite a fairly meticulous schedule, never quite feels like enough. I probably missed some of the precious gems, but what can you do? Maybe borrow the silly time-travel mechanic from About Time and do it all over again? In which case I might just try and savour it a little more. The atmosphere, the experience, and the sunny weather. The clue was probably in the opening night premiere; it’s a shame I didn’t see it until the very end. Mental note: next time, remember to breathe in.

[For those who just want the chase, minus the exposition, my unordered favourites were: Frances Ha, Blackbird, Everyone’s Going to Die, Leviathan, For Those in Peril, What Maisie Knew, Magic Magic, Stories We Tell, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, and 7 Boxes]

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