so the edinburgh international film festival drew to a close on sunday, and bloody excellent it was too. I thought I'd bang out a few reviews for some of the films I saw while they're still fresh in my memory. click on titles to view trailers.
A down and out hick from a dirty southern USA town conspires to have his own mother killed by a sheriff-cum-hitman in a plot to take her life insurance. Joe the hitman has his own agenda however, and soon finds ways to manipulate the hick and his family for his own personal gain. Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, French Connection, Bug) states that this blackly comic film adapted from a play examines the 'verities' of love, death and redemption, yet any attempt at depth was sadly lost on me and, judging by the very apparent squeals of horror during the screening, also a fair portion of the audience. The film's dumb redneck stereotypes watch monster truck derbies and trashy cartoons on TV, then set about beating and arguing with each other in the same manner of the trash pop culture they consume. As their plans are continually foiled by the smooth operating Joe of the title, they lurch from one great misfortune to another, like a drunken and d'ohing Homer Simpson on a bad day. Friedkin never allows his hicks to transcend the destitute situation of their own poverty, miseducation and incredible stupidity. Matthew McConaughey turns out to be an excellent comedic actor, his scenes of droll dialogue with Juno Temple's barely adolescent Dottie being the most watchable, although the 'romantic' affair between the two turns out to be one of the most unsettling aspects of the film. Friedkin knows that his film is in incredibly poor taste, but still expects us to like it. However I found it very hard to connect with more than just a portion of the film's well executed humour before being overcome with dark moodiness at its plunging moral centre. While it may be a cut above the juvenile idiocy of the American Pie franchise in terms of genuinely funny moments and visual appeal, it ultimately suffers from the same gratuitous attempts at extreme gross-out humour that made me find those films so repellent. After Friedkin has done laughing at his poor unfortunate hicks' misfortunes, he tops off the film by having them all either shot, raped, or beaten to a bloody pulp. This left me with the rather unsettling feeling that he not only doesn't care for his film's characters, but actively despises them.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PAUL THE PSYCHIC OCTOPUS:
Director Alexandre O Philippe presents a documentary about the loveable cephalopod who unwittingly convinced a superstition-hungry public of its pre-cognitive powers during the 2010 World Cup. The film documents the genesis of the 'psychic octopus' charade by members of a small German sea life centre, records the subsequent media scramble for a juicy story, and presents interviews with the most important figures in Paul's brief time in the limelight, most notably his 'agent' Chris Davies. Along the way we meet a Russian millionaire who had plans to buy up our hero, fishermen arguing over Paul's country of origin, and near the end we even get a bit of fellow psychic Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog predicting the weather in Pennsylvania. It should be noted though that these sections are not presented in the order you might expect, the most curious thing about this film being its structure, which I often found puzzling. Why did the anthropologist discussing the history of humans' relationships with sea creatures keep popping up at the most unexpected moments, and was it really necessary to have so many clips of the studio owner cracking bad squid gags? There were some unusual creative decisions executed in the making of this film, but make no mistake: this is a creative film. Interviews are interspersed with ingenious animations of octopuses and football matches, made out of lego bricks or papier mache or cardboard and glue. The editing is fast and furious, a little too much so for my taste, and the rapid mental switching between reading subtitles and listening to spoken English proved trying at times. The film also features a gaggle of woo-woos at their most ridiculous, (including a numerologist explaining the numerical significance of Paul's eight tentacles) however a thorough skeptical analysis of how Paul could seemingly predict the outcome of football matches was never really explored. Presumably this is because skepticism – regrettably – is rarely cinematic, as the mathematician who took a stab at explaining the riddle of Paul using Bayesian mathematics was quick to demonstrate. The director himself seems less intent on finding the most plausible answer to this puzzling question than examining a rare and intriguing ripple of the phenomenon that is pop culture.
A portuguese woman Pilar worries for her elderly neighbour Aurora, who appears to be experiencing delusions and exhibits erratic and possibly damaging behaviour. Pilar has problems of her own, as she struggles to make herself feel connected and relevant in the society in which she lives. Pilar tracks down her neighbour's former lover who describes to her his past with Aurora in a Portuguese colony in Africa, in a long story that takes up most of the length of the film. Presented in crisp and gorgeous monochrome, the film is split into two distinct sections, which could each serve as two individual films in themselves. The assuredness of director Miguel Gomes' creative approach is made particularly apparent in the second section, in which the old man narrator weaves a fantastical story of forbidden love, the kind of story that Pilar needs in order to make her feel connected. The memories of the man are re-enacted as he narrates over stunning images of a vivid Africa full of chirruping crickets and roaring lions, yet with a nod to silent cinema, the voices of the actors in this section are kept silent. I did get the impression early on that this strange monochrome film was going to be tediously obscure and impenetrable, but it turned out to be an absolute marvel. Director Miguel Gomes achieved so much in this film, from honouring the history of cinema to creating characters with depth and complexity, to bringing the kind of filmic structure to the screen that I haven't seen since Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. This is a wide open film, with layers of meaning and subtle connections throughout, and it may take some time post-film to digest exactly what the whole thing was all about. The screening was well worth going to for Miguel Gomes' extraordinary question and answer session after the film. His long intricate answers to simple questions like 'how did you decide on the film's title' were hypnotizing, and in every which way matched the film I'd just watched. His answers to questions would take us on a very welcome wander around the houses before ending in a sudden yet very clever way which made me feel like I was in the presence of genius.
VIVAN LAS ANTIPODAS!:
Director Victor Kossakovsky attempts to find commonalities between the vast expanses and diverse peoples of a complex planet through a study of antipodes, two places on Earth which are exactly geographically opposite. The film opens with a stunning image of an Argentinian landscape, in which two men living out of a dilapidated wooden shack collect tolls from the very few drivers passing by over their rickety bridge. The camera soon leaves the solitary men and zooms down to this Argentinian region's antipode of Shanghai, China. There we see cars tearing through a sprawling and murky metropolis, and in a breathtaking moment, the camera actually turns upside down, showing for a brief while how it is to be held down (up?) by the force of gravity. For a moment I was forced to consider just how unusual it is that everything sticks out from the face of the planet in such an oddly stable way and then I felt as if I was dangling out of my cinema seat rather than merely sitting in it. This is the kind of perspective-altering moment of clarity that can be found through studying science, but here it is brought home through the wonder of cinema. Throughout the film people go about their everyday lives seemingly oblivious to the extraordinary fact of their existence in such sublime landscapes of texture and beauty. However the upward point of my approving thumb to the film's opening sections soon finds its own antipode as the film becomes more fractured and unfocussed the longer it goes on. One moment there is semi-improvised dialogue from presumably untrained actors, the next there is documentary-style footage with people staring unnervingly at the camera, and the connections Kossakovsky tries to make between the antipodes are often tedious and banal. The shots of wildlife and natural features were lovely but in many of the later sections I felt they would have been better handled by the makers of a BBC wildlife documentary like Life or Frozen Planet. It was a frustrating experience watching a film with this amount of good will and commitment to an interesting idea from an international team fall apart at the seams. By the end, my thumb was left wagging around the equator.