My brief trip to the Edinburgh Film Festival came to an end Friday evening, as I hopped on a bus to Glasgow for a weekend with friends — sadly, that means I missed Tilda Swinton’s flashmob dance event, but I’m waving my right hand in the air as I type. It’ll have to do.
I had planned to do a separate post for each of my final two days at the fest, but the notable films from that period can be squeezed into a single roundup. It’s perhaps kinder not to dwell on the likes of Britfilm “The Kid” — a paperback misery memoir put to film that bottoms out with Natascha McElhone trying to out-monster Mo’Nique in National Health glasses and oddly well-conditioned hair — while some titles are already old news Stateside.
I dipped into Icelandic director Dagur Kári’s “The Good Heart,” for example, to see if the critical pounding US critics gave it in April was justified. Alas, it was: after this and “The Extra Man” (easily the worst film I saw here) Paul Dano should be wary of any script that calls on him to shack up with batty old codgers in Manhattan. Thankfully, my final day provided me with two of my favorite discoveries of the week, a happy conclusion to a cheerily-run festival that has been needlessly mauled in certain media quarters.
Some journalists have complained about the weak standard of the British films in competition (a thin selection, to be sure, but fest director Hannah McGill can’t be held accountable for the industry’s woes), the charmlessness of the festival’s key multiplex venue (a practical if unpretty necessity) and the fact that many of the best films here (“The Illusionist” and “Restrepo,” in particular) are old news to critics who travelled to Berlin and Sundance in the winter — this last a particularly elitist and ill-thought gripe for a public-oriented event.
Edinburgh’s indie-skewing Sundance-in-the-Highlands approach may turn up its share of duds, but that’s par for the course in a fest that specifically brands itself a “festival of discovery” — and in five days, I mined enough gold to render the trip worthwhile, and still left with the sense that I missed a gem or two. For some of those, and another defense of the fest as a whole, I direct you to Tim Robey’s neat Daily Telegraph overview.
With that, here is my final batch of mini-reviews; I’ll report on the just-announced prizewinners (two of which feature below) in due course.
“Think ‘It Happened One Night’ meets ‘District 9,’” is how the festival programme advertised Brit newcomer Gareth Edwards’s limber, genre-hopping debut — immediately putting me in mind of those meaningless producer pitches so gleefully parodied in Robert Altman’s “The Player.” From that line, I remarked to a colleague before the screening, I had as much idea of what lay ahead of me as I would have got from “‘Bloodsport’ meets ‘The Remains of the Day’,” or “‘The Death of Mr Lazarescu’ meets ’13 Going on 30′.”
And then darn it (and my cynicism) if the blurb didn’t turn out to be oddly apt. A crisp, witty and highly resourceful fusion of indie romcom, tourist movie and creature thriller — with almost none of the ungainliness of that description — Edwards’s film quickly sets up its odd-couple road-movie premise with a minimum of “science stuff”: in the near future, following a failed NASA mission to discover extra-terrestrial life, much of Mexico and South America are quarantined after becoming infested with lethal squid-like aliens. Intrepid photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy, repeating his engagingly scruffy act from breakout indie “In Search of a Midnight Kiss”) is hired to escort poor-little-rich-girl Samantha (Whitney Able) back to the US after she is stranded in the danger zone.
You can guess where it goes from there, but it’s the details that keep the film spry and surprising: Edwards demonstrates a refreshing concern with the social fabric of the ravaged rural landscape the protagonists cross, while the leads avoid shrill conflict in favor of a warm, grounded push-pull chemistry. The monster action, when it arrives, is both genuinely tense and unexpectedly poetic, the concealment necessitated by a shoestring budget working wholly in the film’s favor.
With that last point in mind, it should still be said that the visual returns Edwards, previously an award-winning FX artist, has generated from his tiny allowance are nothing short of astonishing. Not content with standard writer-director duty, Edwards acts as his own cinematographer, production designer and visual effects creator, excelling in all departments: the mileage this attractively sunset-hued film generates from existing Mexican locales is particularly impressive. Both a knockout of a calling-card and a nifty entertainment in its own right, “Monsters” only further embarrasses some of this summer’s stratospherically budgeted blockbusters.
“THE DRY LAND” (***)
Years before she became TV’s most aggravating do-gooder on “Ugly Betty,” America Ferrera demonstrated a quiet conviction and intelligence in a well-intentioned indie called “Real Women Have Curves.” Happily, all of the above (particularly the “well-intentioned” part) apply to her work in Ryan Piers Williams’s debut feature “The Dry Land,” a compassionate but largely connect-the-dots new entry in the burgeoning post-Iraq ‘war at home’ genre that gave us “The Messenger” last year.
Ferrera plays the loving but ill-treated wife of Ryan O’Nan’s protagonist James, a volatile blue-collar Texan who returns from a tour of duty emotionally crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder. As his alarming outbursts tear an increasingly irreparable hole through his marriage, friendships and grim civilian job as an abattoir worker (squeamish vegetarians, count yourselves warned), the film becomes less a self-contained story than a public service announcement of sorts about the perils of PTSD, complete with a helpline number at the start of the closing credits.
Usefully countering this slightly inorganic feel is Williams’s keen sense of the rhythms and textures of small-town life and O’Nan’s open, unmannered performance, ably supported by a committed ensemble. Melissa Leo is thoroughly overqualified for the stock role of James’s loyal, emphysemic ma, but lends it dignity anyway, while Wilmer Valderrama springs a pleasant surprise as a former soldier and family man silently negotiating his own trauma.
“THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF” (***1/2)
The most haunting and distinctive of several outstanding documentaries at Edinburgh this year, Pietro Marcello’s feature debut is a curious double valentine of sorts: a rapturously beautiful (if somewhat dirt-stained) ode to the northern Italian port city of Genoa — comparisons to Terence Davies’s Liverpool elegy “Of Time and the City” are both obvious and entirely earned — that almost accidentally encases a moving, taboo-pushing outsider romance. Over a compact 76-minute running time, Marcello fashions a rich and complex structure of history, memory and urban myth.
Commissioned by a Jesuit charity organization to document the city’s sizable underclasses, Marcello (not a native, though his outsider perspective works to the film’s advantage) weaves his camera through Genoa’s maze of seamily atmospheric back-alleys and happens upon an unlikely love story between two damaged ex-cons: burly habitual criminal Enzo and transsexual former junkie Mary. Their relationship, flying in the face of rigid Italian notions of class and religion, serves as a fascinating social counterpoint to a broader investigation of the city and its people.
Marcello expertly incorporates archival footage to capture a society forever defined by its past, for better or worse, and there’s ample visual splendor in twilit shots of Genoa in full, throbbing swing. But it’s a lengthy, unbroken sequence wherein Enzo and Mary collaborate in telling their story straight to camera that serves as a testament to the effectiveness of the simplest documentary techniques, and where this probing human essay truly comes into its own.