Monday, 28 June 2010

EIFF final: The winners

Yes, that's Ugly Betty herself, America Ferrera who turned up with fiance Ryan Piers Williams, who wrote and directed The Dry Land and took home an award at the final festival ceremony in Edinburgh on Saturday night. Here are the winners...

Michael Powell Award (New British Feature): Skeletons
International Feature: The Dry Land
Feature Documentary: The Oath
Audience Award: Get Low
New Director Award: Gareth Edwards (Monsters)
Performance in a British Film: David Thewlis (Mr Nice)
New British Animation: Stanley Pickle
British Short Film: Baby
International Short Film: Rita
Scottish Short Documentary: Maria's Way

My own top 10 favourites (of the 53 festival films I saw)...
  1. The Secret in Their Eyes
  2. Winter's Bone
  3. Toy Story 3
  4. Get Low
  5. Monsters
  6. Restrepo
  7. Heartbreaker
  8. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
  9. The Illusionist
  10. Mr Nice
And here are some comments on a final handful of films I saw over the past two weeks...

The Dry Land
dir Ryan Piers Williams; with Ryan O'Nan, America Ferrera 09/US ****
Newcomer O'Nan gives a compelling performance in this post-traumatic stress drama as a soldier just back from a tour of duty in Iraq and struggling to return to life with his wife (Ferrara). The film has strong echoes of Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss in its structure and themes, but is a smaller, scruffier film, which gives it a kick all its own. It also features strong supporting roles for Melissa Leo, Jason Ritter and Wilmer Valderrama.

Street Days
dir Levan Koguashvili; with Guga Kotetishvili 10/Geo ****
This story of a low-life junkie on the streets of Tbilisi has an askance charm that continually catches us by surprise as it follows Checkie (the terrific Kotetishvili) through a series of events that squeeze him from every conceivable side - including his wife, the cops, his dealer, a politician's teen son and the scary principal at his own son's school. Fortunately, the film is made with both a gritty sense of realism and an offhanded wit, which combine to draw us into the story and really care what happens to Checkie and the people he is trying to protect.

dir Zach Clark; with Trieste Kelly Dunn, Lydia Hyslop 10/US **
This extremely low-budget American horror comedy had its world premiere at Edinburgh, but it turned out to be one of the festival's more uneven entries. The idea isn't hugely original: four friends take a week-long holiday to a seaside house, where something goes horribly wrong and they completely fail to cope with it. But the film's lurid, leery approach isn't easy to engage with, and the cast members drift wildly over the top. But it's the gaping holes in the script that cause the most trouble.

dir Jeffrey Blitz 09/US ***
The director of Spellbound takes a similar approach with this documentary about lottery winners, following a handful of lucky millionaires who talk about how the money has completely changed their lives. And for each of them, the challenges have outweighed the benefits. This isn't really a surprise, but at least they are all colourful people whose stories are interesting to watch. Intriguingly, none of them are hugely sympathetic, which leaves the film feeling somewhat cold and aloof. So Blitz spices things up with a witty look at the lottery through the ages, with history and stats that are eye-opening in ways the personal stories aren't.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

EIFF 12: Closing night

The stars were out in Edinburgh on Saturday night for the closing event of the festival: the world premiere of the British drama Third Star. (Pictured: lead actors Adam Robertson, JJ Feild and Tom Burke.) Afterwards, everyone went on to the final party at the Caves - a lively event in a sprawling venue. Within about two minutes, I ran across Brian Cox on the stairs, Timothy Spall in the upstairs bar, JJ Feild near the VIP area, Tom Burke in the pub area and David Thewlis outside chatting with the smokers.

Here are some more highlights from the festival - and I'll have one more roundup in another post with the award winners...

Red Hill
dir Patrick Hughes; with Ryan Kwanten, Steve Bisley 10/Aus ***
Kwanten is clearly the draw here, an Aussie actor who's now a household name thanks to True Blood. So it's nice to see him go home and make a gritty little thriller like this (amusingly, the first image we see of him is as he gets dressed, and he keeps his clothes on for the rest of the film). He plays a young cop who moves to a rural town with his pregnant wife, but on his first day at work is thrown headlong into a full on conspiracy-nightmare. The plot is a little obvious, but it's extremely well made, with some genuinely tense moments.

Lucky Luke
dir James Huth; with Jean Dujardin, Silvie Testud 09/Fr ****
Dujardin remains in his OSS-117 spoof mode for this hilarious Western, which has heavy echoes of Blazing Saddles in its story of an ace gunslinger who reluctantly takes a job as sheriff to clean up an outrageously rowdy Utah town. That it's in French is half the joke, as are his sidekicks Calamity Jane, Jesse James and Billy the Kid (hilarious performances from Testud, Melvil Poupaud and Michael Youn). And the visual style is simply gorgeous, recreating the original comic strip images with vivid colour and snappy humour.

Ollie Kepler's Expanding Purple World
dir Viv Fogenie; with Edward Hogg, Jodie Whittaker 10/UK **
This offbeat and extremely ambitious British drama starts promisingly as brainy geek Ollie (Hogg) struggles to cope with a terrible tragedy and literally feels his life spiralling out of control. At first it's great to see Hogg in a restrained, believable performance, but he quickly tips over into nutty mania (as usual) as Ollie's imagination gets out of control. It's an intriguing premise, well played by the cast, but the film is just too repetitive and indulgent to really come together.

dir Javier Fuentes-Leon; with Cristian Mercado, Manolo Cardona 09/Peru ****
Homosexuality is a very touchy issue in Latin America, and filmmaker Fuentes-Leon takes a beautifully sensitive approach to this story of a fisherman (Mercado) who believes his manliness lies in the fact that he's married, his wife is pregnant and he's a leader in the church and community. The fact that he's in love with his childhood pal (Cardona) is almost irrelevant - but it's also something he can't escape. The story takes a turn that combines strong emotion with magical realism as it looks at how things should be, but aren't. A strong story, lyrically well-told.

Au Revoir Taipei
dir Arvin Chen; with Jack Yao, Amber Kuo 10/Tai ****
One of the rare films in this festival that sends you smiling and dancing out of the cinema, this charming comedy from Taiwan stirs romance and crime into the intertwined lives of its colourful characters. It helps that the cast is almost shamelessly likeable, and the film is strikingly shot - packed with vivid colours and witty camerawork. In the end, the criminal element of the plot gives way to an open-hearted approach that draws both laughter and happy sighs all around. A lovely surprise.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

EIFF 11: Secrets and lies

It was Timothy Spall on the red carpet here in Edinburgh last night for the premiere of his new film Jackboots on Whitehall, in which he voices Winston Churchill (above). Otherwise, it was another day of movies in darkened cinemas and warm Scottish summertime outdoors in between. In the evening, a group of us journalists meet up for our annual bowling extravaganza - to take our minds off film and exercise those tired legs. I managed a respectable 2nd place in both games. Then it was off to the world premiere party for Col Spector's Honeymooner, a fairly subdued event sponsored by a certain brandy (lesson: never make cocktails out of brandy).

Here are some highlights (starting with my favourite of the festival) on the last full day of the festival, which ends with the closing film Third Star and awards ceremony tonight. Tomorrow will be a day of Best of the Fest screenings...

The Secret in Their Eyes
dir Juan Jose Campanella; with Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil 09/Arg *****
Gorgeously filmed with passion and artistry, this is a provocative story of the tenacity of justice as seen through the eyes of a man who can't forget the one that got away. This is literally breathtaking filmmaking on every level ... M O R E >

dir Col Spector; with Gerard Kearns, Chris Coghill 10/UK ***
This slice-of-life drama centres on a young guy (Kearns) in North London struggling with the messy breakup of a relationship and friends who insist he gets back out there. Nothing really happens in the film, but as it follows him over the two weeks that would have been his honeymoon, it's warm and endearing, beautifully played by the whole cast with likeable, realistic characters and some extremely honest conversations.

Cherry Tree Lane
dir Paul Andrew Williams; with Rachael Blake, Tom Butcher 10/UK ***
Britain gets some suburban terror in this horrific home-invasion thriller about a couple whose tense dinner is interrupted by the arrival of a trio of young guys who are determined to teach their son a lesson once he gets home. First though they have to tie up the parents and menace them in unthinkable ways. The events play out in real time, which gives the film a strong kick. And it's especially well directed and acted. But in the end it feels somewhat pointless.

dir Nicolas Philibert 10/Fr ****
On the surface this doc couldn't feel much simpler: the camera merely watches the orangutans at a French zoo, most notably grand dame Nenette, while we hear the ambient noises, including the chatter of visitors watching them in their pens. We also get commentary from Nenette's keepers - including one from her past - who tell telling and often funny anecdotes about her colourful life. The surprise is that, even with this basic structure and 70-minute running time, filmmaker Philibert (Etre et Avoir) not only tells us rather a lot about orangutans, their history and their interaction with humans, but he also gives us an engaging glimpse into the way we interact with the animal world.

Third Star
dir Hattie Dalton; with Benedict Cumberbatch, JJ Feild 10/UK ***
This year's closing film doesn't exactly send us out of the cinema smiling! It's a dark and often very serious drama about mortality centring on four 30-ish guys who head off on a long hike along the Welsh coastline. One of them (Cumberbatch) is dying of cancer and wants to see his favourite beach for the last time. Along the way there are plenty of moments of levity and even slapstick, even as the story seems to repeat itself a bit. The cast is perfection, creating well-rounded characters who interact meaningfully. But be ready for some very heavy stuff in the last act - provocative, thoughtful and extremely moving.

Friday, 25 June 2010

EIFF 10: A hero lies in you

The sun continued to shine on Thursday, even though it was a bit cooler outside. The festival is winding to a close - it was the quietest day so far, and things will crank up again today and this weekend. Still, filmmaker Steve Sale bravely walked the red carpet in his SOS costume for the premiere of his documentary Superhero Me then hung out in the press lounge for awhile.

Here are some Friday highlights...

dir Pascal Chaumeil; with Romain Duris, Vanessa Paradis 10/Fr ****
This delightful romantic comedy refuses to play by Hollywood rules. So even though it's as predictable as you'd expect, it keeps the characters grounded in reality. And their dialog is peppered with truly terrific lines ... M O R E >

The Extra Man
dir Berman & Pulcini; with Paul Dano, Kevin Kline 09/US ****
Paul Dano is terrific in this comedy about a young guy named Louis in New York who builds a very offbeat friendship with his theatrical, eccentric flatmate Henry (Kline). The title refers to Henry's job as an escort for wealthy old ladies, a role that Louis takes to with alarming skill. The film is a bit soft around the edges, and also rather low key in its approach, but the offbeat characters are thoroughly engaging.

Get Low
dir Aaron Schneider; with Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek 09/US *****
If it wasn't enough that this film has a terrific cast that combines Duvall at his very best, Spacek at her most luminous and Bill Murray at his most restrained (yet still deadpan hilarious), it's also stunningly written, directed and photographed. It's a gentle story of lifelong regret - penitance and redemption, mixed with a deep romanticism and strongly gruff wit. Duvall plays a grouchy, scary hermit who decided to "get low" - get down to business - and tidy up the loose strands of his life before he dies. And while it may be slow and rather predictable, getting there is sheer cinematic joy.

Superhero Me
dir Steve Sale; with Steve Sale, Charlotte Sale 10/UK ****
With a Morgan Spurlock-like approach, filmmaker Sale explores the concept of real-life superheroes by transforming himself into one called SOS. And it's pretty hilarious to watch mim go through diet and fitness regimes, martial arts training, designing his costume, creating a back-story and even composing a theme tune. Not to mention ultimately gaining local notoreity. But along the way he meets a lot of other real heroes (in spandex and otherwise) who are making a difference in their communities. Funny and challenging.

The Kid
dir Nick Moran; with Rupert Friend, Jodie Whittaker 10/UK ***
Based on the amazing true story, this film traces Kevin Lewis' life from his insanely abusive home (Natascha McElhone is an evil mum who'd give Mo'Nique a run for her money) through various care homes and into a life of crime. It's an often harrowing journey - well-played by the cast, although the rollercoaster structure begins to feel a little repetitive as it goes along. Still, besides recounting a fascinating tale, the film also has some important things to say about society's responsibility to children who may be at risk. And how doing nothing only makes things worse.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

EIFF 9: Luck of the draw

Brian Cox faces the press on the red carpet for the UK premiere of his new film The Good Heart, which reunites him with his L.I.E. costar Paul Dano. Yes, it was another sunny day in Edinburgh, and there's definitely a sense that the festival is starting to wind down. Only three days to go, plus the best of the fest on Sunday. If we survive the parties on Friday and Saturday.

It's cooler here today, but still sunny. Here are some more highlights...

The Good Heart
dir Dagur Kari; with Paul Dano, Brian Cox 09/Ice ***
Set in New York but shot largely in Iceland, this dark, gritty drama has moments of earthy humour and raw emotion in its story of a grumpy old bar owner (Cox) whose heart attack spurs him to reach out to a homeless guy (Dano) who might be his only shot at a legacy. It's a remarkably well played film, with gruff intensity and strong characters. And it looks very cool - gritty and dark and full of textures and shadows. But the plot is repetitive and gnawingly predictable.

dir Hetherington & Junger 09/US ****
This doc makes every Hollywood war movie look utterly fake. It's shot completely in the hot zone in Afghanistan, with much of the footage coming from cameras on the soldiers' helmuts. This gives us a ground-level view of the action, and it's thoroughly involving - funny, harrowing, downright terrifying. And along the way, the young guys become fully rounded characters as we follow their 15-month deployment, during which they lose a few colleagues to injury and death, while struggling to make any ground against an enemy that's virtually invisible. We also see their interaction with the local villagers, which is tricky and sometimes very tough. But it's the raw emotions that catch our attention - the highs and lows that change these young men forever.

My Words, My Lies, My Love [Lila, Lila]
dir Alain Gsponer; with Daniel Bruhl, Hannah Herzsprung 09/Ger ***
Bruhl is charming in this slightly uneven German comedy about an unambitious guy who finds an unpublished manuscript in a drawer and passes it off as his own to impress a girl. But she sends it to a publisher, sparking a literary phenomenon - and he's understandably not very comfortable with this fame. Especially when someone claiming to be the real author turns up. The film is warm and engaging but never very inventive, relying on a couple of clunky plot points and loud slapstick where more subtle wit would have worked better. Still, it's entertaining and probably ripe for an American remake.

The Crab
dir Rona Mark; with Guy Whitney, George Stevenson 10/US **
Whitney stars in this film as a man with a deformation that makes his hands look like crab claws. But that's the least of his worries, as it's his abrasive personality that alienates everyone around him. Over the course of this film, he falls for a feisty woman who sees past his hands but ultimately loses patience with his annoying cynicism. The most implausible thing about the film is that he has any friends to begin with - and the filmmaker seems to realise this, as she makes no effort to redeem him. An intriguing movie, but far too bleak a comedy to win over the audience.

A Spanking in Paradise
dir Wayne Thallon; with Andrew Hawley, Simon Weir 10/UK ***
Set in Edinburgh, this loose and very low-budget comedy centres on a young human rights lawler (Hawley) who comes to town to stay with his uncle (Weir) while he waits for his American visa to come through. The hitch is that his uncle runs a brothel under the cover of the Birds of Paradise sauna, and several mini adventures ensue. Lively, offbeat characters make the film thoroughly disarming, as do some extremely silly set pieces. But while it's enjoyably watchable, the film isn't quite as funny as it could have been.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

EIFF 8: Off the wall

It was the European premiere of the British film Mr Nice last night in sunny Edinburgh - that's David Thewlis, director Bernard Rose, Howard Marks and Rhys Ifans on the red carpet beforehand. They were there to introduce the film and gave us a lively Q&A afterwards. It was another busy day at the festival - I saw five films - with the summer weather continuing at full boil. It's too gorgeous to be sitting inside a cinema all day, but I did manage to get out into the parks in between screenings.

Here are some highlights...

Mr Nice
dir Bernard Rose; with Rhys Ifans, David Thewlis 10/UK ****
The story of notorious pot dealer Howard Marks becomes a seriously infectious movie, cleverly directed by Rose in film styles that echo the various decades of the story. It's also anchored by a lascerating performance from Ifans, who in the final act manages to twist the film into something much more sympathetic and engaging than we could ever expect. And his scenes with Thewlis (as an IRA leader) are absolutely hysterical. Yes, the film may be accused of celebrating drug use, but it's actually just a good story well told.

The Rebound
dir Bart Freundlich; with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Justin Bartha 09/US ***

A charming and observant tone helps lift this above most romantic comedies, at least until the formula kicks in during the final rather contrived act. But until then, it keeps us happily smiling and sighing along ... M O R E >

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
dir Werner Herzog; with Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon 09/US ****

It's hard to imagine a more bonkers combination than Herzog and David Lynch (who produces), and indeed, this film is one of those love-hate propositions: thoroughly nuts and yet eerily riveting. Based on a true story, the film deconstructs a police stand-off as two cops (Dafoe and Michael Pena) try to talk a killer (Shannon) out of his house. Meanwhile, witnesses (including Chloe Sevigny and Udo Keir) tell stories that take us into flashbacks of the weeks before the murder. Besides being a rippingly well-made film, it also has some very interesting things to say about art, family and mental instability.

dir Taika Waititi; with James Rolleston, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu 10/NZ ***
From the maker of Eagle vs Shark, here's another light-handed drama set in a Maori community in which 11-year-old Boy (Rolleston) confronts the father (Waititi) he never knew - and realises he's perhaps not the hero he thought he was. The film is loose and almost plotless, focussing instead on the characters and their internal journeys. But that makes it sound like a dire drama, when it's actually extremely funny. Set in 1984, the film is awash in iconic images (including Boy's other hero, Michael Jackson), which adds a level of irony and even some laugh-out-loud gags along the way.

Me, Too [Yo, Tambien]
dir Pastor & Naharro; with Lola Duenas, Pablo Pineda 09/Sp ****
From Spain, this disarming comedy-drama takes a relaxed and insightful look into an important theme, as a man with Down's Syndrome (Pineda) falls for his colleague (Duenas). Where this goes is completely unpredictable, as the film gently challenges stereotypes and prejudices we didn't even know we had. Without ever being pushy or preachy, the film makes its point clearly. And the story itself is so sweet that you'll want everyone you know to see it too.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

EIFF 7: Altered states

More starry red carpets in the sunshine yesterday, as Edinburgh enjoyed a warm and very long evening (the longest of the year, actually). Jury member Sir Patrick Stewart took centre stage last night for a masterclass interview, while the press office hosted a lively film quiz. Meanwhile my eyes are getting blurry with all of these films (I saw five on Monday), but we're in the final stretch now toward the closing night film on Saturday.

Here are some highlights from Tuesday's schedule...

Police, Adjective
dir Corneliu Porumboiu; with Dragos Bucur, Ion Stoica 09/Rom ****
Including all those dull moments that are left off-screen in other cop movies, this dry, slow-paced Romanian drama portrays the tedium of an investigation with remarkable realism, dry humour and a quietly political kick... M O R E >

dir Nick Whitfield; with Ed Gaughan, Andrew Buckley 10/UK ****
This surreal and quirky British comedy-drama benefits from strongly resonant performances that help us go along with the absurdist plot. It also has an intriguingly emotional tone that catches us off guard... MORE >

Henry of Navarre [Henri 4]
dir Jo Baier; with Julien Boisselier, Joachim Krol 10/Fr ***
The sweeping nature of this story is slightly undercut by apparent budget limitations (most noticeable in the sets), but the story has real power and keeps us gripped throughout the 2.5-hour running time. It's the tale of the boy king from Navarre who married Princess Margot and got entangled in the political/religious wranglings of the Medici family - conspiracies, assassinations, massacres, betrayals - as the Catholics and Protestants fought for control of France. The strength of the narrative more than makes up for the unstarry cast and slightly lacklustre production values.

High School
dir John Stalberg Jr; with Sean Marquette, Adrien Brody 10/US ****
This isn't really a festival kind of movie - it's a stoner comedy. But it's raised above the fray by a razor sharp script that keeps us laughing from start to finish as the class valedictorian (Matt Bush) and his stoner pal (Marquette) try to get their entire school high to throw off a mandatory drug screening. Snappy dialog and crazed situations keep it very lively indeed, more than making up for the cheesy filmmaking. Whether it overcomes charges that it makes drug use look like fun is another issue altogether.

Monday, 21 June 2010

EIFF 6: True infatuation

It's the longest day of the year here in Edinburgh, and the sky basically is never going dark - with the continuing bright sunshine outside. Meanwhile, inside cinemas we're watching some very interesting films - lots of independent movies, most of which use suicide as a major plot point. Is this a running theme this year? (Pictured: Brian Pettifer, Kate Dickie and Martin Compston at the premiere of Donkeys)

Here are some highlights on Monday...

The Runaways
dir Floria Sigismondi; with Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning 10/US ***
Stewart and Fanning are terrific as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie in this take of 70s teens forming the first rock-chick band. So it's a bit strange how the filmfeels slightly off-balance, as it centres on Currie (it's based on her book). Sure, her story is perhaps the better of the two, but it's Jett we want to know more about. Even so, the film is packed with great music and extremely strong acting, including Michael Shannon as iconic music promoter Kim Fowley.

Barry Munday
dir Chris D'Arienzo; with Patrick Wilson, Judy Greer 10/US ****
Patrick Wilson goes against type as a schlubby nice guy in the dark rom-com about a guy who loses the abillity tohave children then discovers that an unmemorable one-night stand (Greer) is pregnant. As both of these characters adjust to the unpleasant fact that their lives are now intertwined, the film wins us over too.

dir Morag McKinnon; with James Cosmo, Martin Compston 10/UK ***
Set in Glasgow, this rough and grainy drama revolves around a knotted family situation that's made worse because no one is being honest with each other. We know this will all come out in the end, but we could never predict quite how it plays out on screen. Terrific performances from a fine cast that includes Cosmo and Compston, plus Kate Dickie and Brian Pettifer.

dir Ashley Horner; with Nancy Trotter Landry, Liam Browne 10/UK
This low-budget British romantic drama is about that giddy period when life kind of stops while we indulge madly in our passion for a new lover. It's an intriguing film, and very well played with raw honesty, and solid filmmaking. But the indulgent nudity feels somewhat leery as Landry barely ever puts clothes on (although Browne isn't shy either) . And the art-world plot feels a little contrived and pretentious. In the end, it's not so much true romance as mad infatuation, but that makes it rather endearing.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

EIFF 5: Armed and dangerous

Against all odds, the sun continues to shine brightly on the Edinburgh Film Festival - and today it's been warm again after yesterday's chilly breeze. The big event last night was the Toy Story 3 premiere, prompting the week's most surreal scene so far as festival patron Sean Connery struck a James Bond pose on the red carpet with Jessie and Woody.

The party celebrating the world premiere of SoulBoy was great fun later on, as the rousing beat of Northern Soul lured journalists, delegates and even the film's star Martin Compston onto the dance floor late into the night. But we were all back here at 9am for today's round of press screenings.
And here are some of today's festival highlights, including one of my best films of the festival so far...

Winter's Bone
dir Debra Granik, with Jennifer Lawrence 10/US *****
Based on the Daniel Woodrell novel, this film is a riveting exploration of old-society notions of responsibility and obligation, loyalty and betrayal. It deserves the awards it's swept up so far, and more are surely to come... M O R E >

22 Bullets
dir Richard Berry, with Jean Reno 09/Fr **
From the Luc Besson school of violent French thrillers, this film is far sleeker and classier than most, thanks to Berry's strong direction and lucid action set pieces. Jean Reno is also wonderfully understated as the "immortal" killer dragged out of retirement to protect his family and settle a score. This is a fiercely energetic movie that keeps us thoroughly entertained through its outrageously over-the-top action sequences, vivid characters and bonkers plotting.

Jackboots on Whitehall
dir Edward & Rory McHenry, voices Ewan McGregor. Rosamund Pike 10/UK ***
Kind of like a British Team America, this raucous alternate-reality WWII comedy romp features a cast of dolls, including Winston Churchill (hilariously well-voiced by Timothy Spall), trying to defend Britain from a German invasion. The action is frenetic and often hysterically funny as the German high command take over Buckingham Palace and the UK government is sent north to barricade behind Hardian's Wall and seek help from the barbaric, brave(heart) Scots. It's not quite clever enough to be a classic, but it definitely keeps us laughing.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

EIFF 4: Toys and boys

It's still sunny and glorious here in Scotland, and the Edinburgh Film Festival continues to throw on the world premieres and parties. On the red carpet yesterday, the cast and crew of Huge, a British drama about comedy. (Pictured: star Johnny Harris chats to the crowd while Ben Miller, festival organiser Hannah McGill and Jason Isaacs pose for the paparazzi.)

Here are a few highlights today...

Toy Story 3
dir Lee Unrich, scr Muchael Arndt 10/US *****
Pixar outdoes themselves again with this hugely enjoyable sequel, which also inriguingly includes the more melancholy tone of their recent hits. The plot follows Woody, Buzz and crew into a daycare centre that seems like toy paradise but may be more like a prison. From here we get lots of action, sharp comedy and real emotional resonance. It's quite simply one of the most enjoyable, entertaining and even meaningful films of the year.

And Everything Is Going Fine
dir Steven Soderbergh, with Spalding Gray 10/US ****
This unusual documentary tells the life story of Spalding Gray in his own words, using clips of his performance pieces (which were mainly anecdotal monologues about his life) and interviews. Not only is this a breathtakingly well-edited film, but Gray's work raised several recurring themes - mainly examining life and death, including suicide. But even with the dark themes, he remains funny and oddly life-affirming. A remarkable film.

dir Shimmy Marcus, with Martin Compston, Nicola Burley 10/UK ***
Martin Compston delivers a charming central performance as a young guy in the 1970s who is introduced to Northern Soul through a girl (Burley) he has a crush on. The music is wonderful, and so is the dancing. The plot gets a bit convoluted, though, taking some dark turns just when we want it to turn more rousingly crowd-pleasing.

Chase the Slut
dir Ryan Denmark, with Vanessa Claire Smith 10/US ***
Perhaps a bit too clever for its own good, this low-budget American comedy starts out as a blackly funny look at small town morality, as Chase (Smith) is challenged to seduce the son of the pastor of a strange cultlike church. Amid the wackiness, the characters charm us with their realistic reactions. So it's a little strange that the film drifts into some dark emotional moralising at the end. But never mind, by then the filmmaker has won us over to this enjoyable little farce.

Friday, 18 June 2010

EIFF 3: Sunglasses at night

It was another sunny, warm day in Edinburgh on Thursday - I even wore shorts all day, including for a long walk around town in broad daylight until after 10pm. So for once the stars had a good excuse to wear sunglasses on the film festival red carpet last night. (Pictured: director Karl Golden , Emma Booth and Harry Treadaway on the red carpet for the World premiere of Pelican Blood at Cineworld, Edinburgh)

Even so, I managed to see five films yesterday (at least one too many), and it's been fun to notice the heavy emphasis this year on independent cinema, especially from Britain. I've got four again today that are slightly bigger name films. Here are three highlights from the festival today...

dir Ben Miller; with Noel Clarke, Johnny Harris 10/UK ***
Another small Brit film getting its world premiere here, this one struggles simply because it's a very dark drama about stand-up comedy. So we really want it to be funny, but as it follows a couple of guys trying to crack into the business, there are very few laughs. In addition, the central duo (Clarke and Harris) play their roles extremely broadly - more like the stage play it's based on - allowing for very little subtlety or nuance. But it's still a fascinating look at the rocky road to fame.

The People vs George Lucas
dir Alexandre O Philippe 10/US ****
This thoroughly entertaining documentary will appeal mostly to people just like me: those who were total Star Wars obsessives starting back in 1977. The film intriguingly traces the phenomenon of the film and its sequels (and yes prequels) through the eyes of the fans, with the emphasis on how George Lucas' tinkering withthe original trilogy and everything about the prequels felt like a betrayal to people who thought they owned this universe. Most fun are the literally hundreds of clips of fan movies woven into this doc. A real crowd-pleaser.

dir Gareth Edwards; with Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able 10/UK ****
First-time filmmaker Edwards makes an auspicious debut with this fiercely original film set six years after aliens have taken over Mexico. And they're pretty scary mammoth spider-squid beasts rampaging across the countryside. But the film is actially more of a road comedy, pairing a photographer with a rich girl as they traverse this landscape. The film is much more about them than the creatures, which constantly subverts our expectations (and perhaps what we want to see). But Edwards has made a remarkably effective film on a very low budget, and by crushing the formlae he has whetted our appetite for whatever he comes up with next.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

EIFF 2: Offline

There seems to be some sort of internet gremlin on the loose at the festival today as I have been unable to get online anywhere - the festival office and press centre and even the delegate lounge had no connectivity. As a result I am typing this on my phone and can't include a photo from last night's glittering opening night red carpet (added later: festival patron SirSean Connery works the crowd). Suffice it to say that it was a starry night, warm and sunny until midnight. Of course I had alternate plans, dashing to Glasgow instead to see the kick of of the Scissor Sisters' new tour - in a word: fabulous.

Here are some film highlights today...

Family Tree
dir Ducastel/Martineau 10/Fr ****
This sleek and classy French drama centres on a family struggling with grief when a rather big skeleton comes clattering out of the closet. It grapples with all kinds of important issues, most notably how we work to give our families a sheen of normality when "normal" is a myth. Fine performances and deep, gorgeous photography make the film thoroughly involving.

Pelican Blood
with Harry Treadaway, Emma Booth 10/UK ***
A dark drama about a suicidal bird-watcher might be a hard sell commercially, but this film is sensitively well made and very nicely acted by Treadaway as a young man caught between his emotions, his twitcher pals and his activist girlfriend (Booth), who seems to have a death wish herself - indeed, they met on a suicide website. The film is a little too morose for it's own good, but is worth a look.

World's Greatest Dad
dir Bobcat Goldthwait; with Robin Williams 09/US ****
Robin Williams gives one of his best performances in years in this super-black comedy about a man who does somethig pretty unthinkable. ... MORE >

The Last Rites of Ransom Pride
with Dwight Yoakam, Jon Foster 10/US **
So highly stylised that it isn't remotely believable, this convoluted Western follows its bitter characters into Mexico and back to resolve old feuds, and so forth. It's dark and grim and annoyingly overplayed, but there are moments that hold the interest.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

EIFF 1: Et voila!

It's Day 1 here at the 64th Edinburgh Film Festival, which kicks off tonight the the gala premiere of The Illusionist by Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville). The weather here is gorgeous - sunny and warm enough to walk around in short sleeves - not exactly the usual for this festival (and also not likely to continue for many more days).

This is the largest and oldest film festival in the UK - and it's also the favourite of most UK-based critics (including me) because it feels like a proper celebration of cinema - extremely well-organised, with lots of facilities for the press, parties most evenings and a generally relaxed atmosphere that makes it feel almost like a holiday even tough the work levels are intense.

And of course there are the films, a more serious selection than most festivals, concentrating on emerging talent and festival favourite filmmakers. In other words, it's less in thrall to the Hollywood star system, and some of the films may seem rather uneven or awkward (blamed mainly on too much ambition and not enough money). But that makes it even more fun for a critic, I think: we never know what we'll see here.

Here's a brief note on tonight's opening film:

The Illusionist
dir Sylvain Chomet; scr Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet 10/Fr *****
Less hilariously crowd-pleasing than The Triplets of Belleville, Chomet's new animated film, originally written by French master Jacques Tati himself, is a masterful story full of sharp wit, bittersweet emotion and startling tenderness... MORE >

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Critical Week: Wild at heart

As the World Cup kicks off on Friday, high-profile films are utterly missing from UK cinemas over the next month. The only big screening this week for critics was the Apatow-produced comedy Get Him to the Greek, a spin-off from Forgetting Sarah Marshall centring on Russell Brand's nutty rock star alter ego. It's pretty funny with some intriguing dark edges, although the combination is a little uneven. The other big-name movie also tries to mix broad comedy with darker drama, but it's much smaller affair: Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt and Rupert Grint in Wild Target, a remake of a 1993 French film.

Even smaller films included the gripping Everest doc-drama The Wildest Dream, Chris Rock's enjoyable afro doc Good Hair, the too-silly rom-com When in Rome, the gorgeously visual dramatic thriller Hierro from Spain, the rough and riveting South African crime thriller Jerusalema: Gangster's Paradise, the grisly and rather pointless torture horror The Collector and the nutty zombie horror of The Horde. Yes, it's been a wild week.

Next week I head north for the 64th Edinburgh Film Festival - the biggest in the UK and easily my favourite film fest anywhere on earth. Of the 130 films showing there, 22 are world premieres and 12 are international premieres. There's no way I'll see them all (or even half of them), but I'm planning to blog daily from Edinburgh as always, so watch this space...

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Critical Week: Hear me roar

London critics got the feeling New Line was hiding something from us, as they only screened Sex and the City 2 at 9pm on Thursday night - one way of making sure not a single review of this two-and-a-half-hour film leaked until midnight Friday morning. Honestly, the film is review-proof anyway; its fans clearly don't mind that it undermines its female-empowerment message by having these women continually frazzled by man trouble. But there are a few good laughs in it.

Better films last week included Sylvain Chomet's animated follow-up to his brilliant The Triplets of Belleville: The Illusionist will open the Edinburgh Film Festival in two weeks, and it's a real charmer. Andre Techine's The Girl on the Train is an elusive and complicated drama that rewards tenacious viewers. Exhibit A is yet another hand-held camera thriller, but at least this one, from new British filmmaker Dom Rotheroe, starts as a dark family comedy before it turns genuinely unnerving. And the Swedish documentary Videocracy looks at the power of media using a telling example: Italy's rather scary "television of the president".

I also saw, in a special screening at the Venezuelan Embassy, Oliver Stone's entertaining doc South of the Border, which provides a necessary balance on outrageously biased American news reports of left-leaning Latin American governments, even if it's weirdly unquestioning.

This coming week is another mixed bag: the Russell Brand-Jonah Hill comedy Get Him to the Greek, the British comedy-thriller remake Wild Target, the black suburban comedy Lymelife, the surreal British comedy Skeletons, the zombie horror of The Horde, South African crime thriller Jerusalema, the nutty adventure thriller Mega Piranha and the Mt Everest doc The Wildest Dream.