Diary of a Geek Week at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2017

While the sunshine outside is at best intermittent, within the cinemas of Edinburgh there is rarely a dull moment to be had in the month of June, with visits from British character actor Richard E Grant, Hollywood stars Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon bringing the world premiere of their film Story of a Girl and Stanley Tucci with the British premiere of Final Portrait, as well as the fascinating documentary The Farthest, the Irish medieval drama Pilgrimage, the Finnish biopic Tom of Finland, the British psychological thriller Kaleidoscope, the Russian science fiction epics Attraction and Guardians, the world premiere of new horror Double Date and more besides…

Bad Kids of Crestview Academy – Saturday 23rd June – Filmhouse

Based on Barry Wernick and Matthew Spradlin’s graphic novel series, The Bad Kids of Crestview Academy are in detention, among them preacher’s daughter Faith Jackson (Sophia Taylor Ali), cat lover Sara Hasegawa (Erika Daly), “Latin spice” Brian Marquez (Matthew Frias) and Mr Clean himself, Blaine Wilkes (Colby Arps), son of the ambitious Senator Wilkes (Z Nation’s Gina Gershon) who has her eyes on the White House and can’t afford scandal to taint her image.

Joining them is Siouxsie Hess (The Vampire Diaries‘ Sammi Hanratty), just as bad but only on the detention list thanks to the skills of hacker The Naked Wizard (Drake Bell) who needs to ensure a private audience with the four people who were last to talk to her sister Alyson at the party where she died.

Declared a suicide, Siouxsie is convinced otherwise but she is far from the most popular girl in school and she’s on her own, with Headmaster Nash (Lord of the Rings’ Sean Astin) more concerned about the damage to his car and Doctor Knight (Veep‘s Sufe Bradshaw) offering calming platitudes rather than listening: “My apology is a ball of light that I hand to you.”

But when Siouxsie puts her plan into action more bodies begin to pile up, a series of deadly and inventive booby traps laid around the school, and far from uncovering the killer all the evidence seems to point at Siouxsie being the one who laid them, pushing her further from her hostile peers even as she tries to save them all.

Directed by Farscape’s Ben Browder who also doubles as janitor Max Rainwater, the only cast member carried forward from 2012’s Bad Kids Go to Hell other than a post-credit tease for a potential third film in the series, while slick and sassy what should be The Breakfast Club with the bodycount of Heathers lacks the emotional insight or crucial bite of either, the dialogue tepid when it should scald.

The cast are on the whole lively as the tale of how they all came to be in detention is told in flashback even as it reveals the lead up to Alyson’s impromptu balcony high dive into Headmaster Nash’s car bonnet, but while it’s not necessary for them to be especially likeable given the situation nor are any of them other than generic American high school stereotypes played by actors who could not remotely pass as teenagers.

The plot requiring a naivety regarding the processes of data storage and hacking unlikely to be found in the core audience of a film which boasts constant blood, guts, sex, drugs and swearing it nevertheless comes across as frustratingly tame, Browder never letting go of the reins to allow it to become truly subversive or outrageous.

The necessary tension and threat of the situation further undercut by the finale having been shown before the main credits have even rolled, where the Bad Kids of Crestview Academy need to be as tight as a noose and hot as a flamethrower they are neither, their report cards showing a decent achievement which could have been improved with more enthusiasm and effort.

The Dark Mile – Monday 26th June – Cineworld

A change is as good as a rest, so they say, and for Louise and Claire an escape from the ever present demands of London to the open skies of Scotland is much needed and overdue, but as their ancient rolling stock makes its way to the Highlands Claire is already rubbing the locals the wrong way.

“No lesbians in Bonnie Scotland,” she hollers down her cellphone in the quiet carriage, ignoring angry glares, “Just sheep and alcoholism.” What is also missing is the promised wifi signal on their sailing boat Orca, a shrug of the shoulder and deflection from owner Kevin (Under the Skin’s Paul Brannigan) as they set off into the loch ringed by mist-shrouded hills topped with snow.

The wind carrying the splatter of rain, it’s just Louise and Clare and the lapping waves, but with local colour only a breath away from hostility any time they stop at shore it seems as though Clare is determined to rise to it, deliberately becoming confrontational while Louise’s protests go unheard.

Too busy stirring things up, Clare is oblivious to Louise’s increasing distress, hearing noises in the night, suffering from nightmares, objects floating in the water triggering memories of the baby she lost, but all that becomes secondary when the barge appears out of the morning mist, black and relentless, pursuing them up the waterways…

Directed by Gary Love from a script by Gaby Hull, Rebecca Calder’s Louise is the more sympathetic and subtle of the two leads, apparently the more sensible of the two though whether she would have been as wild as her girlfriend had she not been so recently hurt cannot be known, but incapable of opening her mouth without profanity Deirdre Mullins’ Clare is cold and selfish, whatever spark once existed between them doused by the cold waters of the Orca’s wake.

With its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, The Dark Mile is sold largely on the undeniable beauty of the Highlands but while there are hints of darker goings on beneath the surface the glacial beauty of the waters is largely undisturbed, the attempts to sow seeds of sinister atmosphere undermined by Love’s heavy handed urge to indicate the uncanny with intrusive grainy black and white inserts instead of developing characters, narrative or the nature of the threat.

Like a post-industrial Jaws the barge comes and goes unpredictably, but a recce on board to retrieve a stolen iPad just stretches out what is already little more than a waiting game with the barest hint of plot, the film lacking sufficient individuality to make it distinct and Sheila Hancock’s kindly herbalist Mary underused to the point that a cynic might question if the casting of such a distinguished presence is more for marketing than because the role required her.

City folk in unfamiliar terrain isolated from the familiar comfort of home is a common theme in horror, Amen Island, Honeymoon, Without Name to name but a few from recent years while folk horror aficionados will hear the distant call of Robin Redbreast, but with the telegraphed finale arriving with all the grace of stumbling over a log in the woods it’s clear that breath-taking scenery alone is insufficient to tell a compelling story.

Vampire Cleanup Department – Monday 26th June – Filmhouse

Included in the Night Moves strand of the Festival, from Hong Kong comes a late night screening of the aptly named Gao geung jing dou fu (Vampire Cleanup Department) by directors Yan Pak-wing and Chiu Sin-hang, which fits perfectly into that winding down a long day slot, providing exactly what is expected with undemanding energy.

In the underground car parks of Kowloon City Province, in the alleyways of peeling paint and flickering neon, evil lurks, a variety of species of vampire of ancient Chinese myth, each different and requiring a different approach – white vampires, cunning vampires, dry vampires.

“When a person dies with injustice on a gloomy day in a gloomy place, he might become a vampire,” Uncle Chung (Richard Ng) warns his nephew Tim Cheung (Babyjohn Choi); what he does not say, what Tim has never been told, is that his own parents were both agents of the VCD; bitten on patrol, Tim’s mother died giving birth to him but passed on an immunity to the infection of a vampire bite.

The night of a lunar eclipse, the blood moon high over the city casting its spell of ill omen, a powerful water vampire rises and the VCD are despatched to investigate, Tim among them, when he is dragged beneath the surface of the lake and with a stolen kiss the watery crone is reborn to youth, but she is different from her sire.

In life she was Summer Yin (Lin Min-chen), buried alive with her landlord who has become the water vampire; now risen she is a very rare species, a human vampire mutation whom Tim protects and conceals from the Department even as he continues his training in the time-honoured tradition of the montage.

While it may keep one shrewd eye on the western market, with Tim dressing in Vans tops and his bedroom decorated with Iron Man collectables, Vampire Cleanup Department never does so at the expense of its spicy Chinese flavour, the vampires hopping arms-outstretched, the ensemble cast including veteran performers Yuen Cheung-yan and Susan Yam-Yam Shaw as mystical Master Ginger and Tim’s batty Grandma, effortless in their confident charm.

Lit with every coloured gel under the rising sun the film aims for charm and whimsy but the humour is too often clumsy, and the potential romance between Tim and Summer is trite and cloying where it should be sweet, handled no better than the star-crossed lovers of Warm Bodies rather than Life After Beth, though fortunately it is no Burying the Ex.

Focusing on those two naïve twenty-somethings – even if one is approaching her bicentennial – unbalances the already crammed genre mashup of comedy, romance, horror and action but while it never approaches the levels of inappropriate madcap hilarity of the similarly themed The Night Watchmen the efforts of the Vampire Cleanup Department are certainly competent and entertaining.

The Little Hours – Thursday 29th June – Cineworld

It was at the 2014 Festival where Life After Beth was screened, debut feature of writer/director Jeff Baena, with star Aubrey Plaza in attendance, and they have now reunited for The Little Hours, a significant thematic if not stylistic departure, moving from modern day zombie shenanigans to the sun drenched orchards of an isolated convent in the Renaissance period, where bawdy shenanigans unfold.

Inspired by The Decameron, a fourteenth century collection of tales by the Italian writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio, the setting is perhaps faithful but the approach is modern as Sisters Fernanda and Ginerva (Legion‘s Plaza and The Big Bang Theory‘s Kate Micucci) talk girl talk as they wash the linen before proving there is no rage like nun rage as they take out their frustrations, of which there are many, on groundsman Lurco.

Father Tommasso (Kong: Skull Island‘s John C Reilly) has been driven to the sacramental wine and newly arrived Sister Alessandra (Community’s Alison Brie) prays to be rescued by her father and given to a husband, but his debts make the dowry difficult. “How’s your embroidery going?” he asks through the screen of the visiting room. “Maybe that’s your calling. For some people it’s marriage and family, maybe for you it’s your detailed embroidery.”

Mother Marea (Pushing Daisies‘ Molly Shannon) tries to maintain order in the order but it’s an uphill struggle, and the vagrant Father Tommasso brings in to serve as their new gardener, the deaf mute Massetto (Warm Bodies‘ Dave Franco) who is in fact nothing of the sort causes only more complication. Pursued across the land by his master Lord Bruno (Fargo‘s Nick Offerman), furious after being insatiably cuckolded, in order to maintain the masquerade he can neither be seen to respond to the demands of the sisters nor tell them off.

Their lives are simple, rustic and uncomplicated, but that is not to say they themselves are simple or uncomplicated, Baena and his ensemble ensuring that despite the seven century remove these women are more real and genuine than the cardboard portrayals of Hollywood of only a generation back though they are presented as far from holy, Tomasso warning “the girls are tough and violent and have a pack mentality.”

For his part, beyond the immediate physical demands, believing he cannot betray them Massetto becomes a confessor not to the sins of the women but to their fears, the things they cannot say to each other or to Father Tomasso, who cares deeply for all his charges, aware of their shortcomings and his own in the eyes of the lord and the even more judgemental Bishop Bartolomeo who arrives out of the mist.

Carried by the vastly experienced cast the comedy builds a house of cards whose foundations are lies waiting to be found out, ready to tumble at any moment should the word of God illuminate the truth, but instead it is the light of the bonfire of the local witches’ coven frequented by Fernanda’s childhood friend Marta which exposes the compromises and hypocrisies of those who have got the habit.

Fuelled by a warmth and kindness which runs through the whitewashed cloisters deeper than the more obvious desire and dissatisfaction of their restricted lives, despite the historic setting and religious vestments The Little Hours is as far from Doubt or In This House of Brede as can be imagined with its pleasing clash of incongruous beliefs and bad behaviours.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival continues until Sunday 2nd July



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