Diary of a Geek Week at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2011

Once again, June brings around the arrival of the world’s longest continuously running film festival, now in its 65th year. As with so many other arts events the world over, this year the festival is on a smaller scale due to budget considerations, but there are still a few premieres and retrospectives of interest to the discerning geek.

Saturday 18th June – Perfect Sense – Festival Theatre

 It begins so simply.  A doctor is asked to consult on a patient with an unusual ailment.  A man, an ordinary man, a truck driver, has a moment of uncontrollable emotion, overwhelmed by sadness, unable to cope, and then recovers, but with no sense of smell.  An oddity, a curiosity.  Except for the fact that there are also patients in Aberdeen, Dundee, England, France, Belgium and Spain exhibiting the exact same symptoms as this man in the isolation unit in a Glasgow hospital.

The new film from David McKenzie sees him directing his Young Adam lead Ewan McGregor, here with his Trainspotting co-star Ewen Bremner and, for the first time ever, his uncle Denis Lawson along with Bond girl Eva Green, as the epidemiologist whose flat is above the restaurant where the three men work.  As the symptoms become a pandemic, Severe Olfactory Syndrome, McGregor’s chef Michael begins a cautious relationship with the aloof doctor who looks down upon him, quite literally.

With no explanation and no causative agent, theories range from environmental collapse to terrorism to genetically engineered organisms.  In the absence of a treatment or cure, cults spring up across the globe, and panic is only a breath away, yet Perfect Sense is not hysterical.  Even as it tracks the growing relationship of Michael and Susan, two self-admitted damaged people finding comfort in each other and the fleeting moments of beauty they share in a changed world, it is at turns warming and chilling, but never sentimental.  Filmed largely in Scotland’s second city, the dour mood of the perpetual grey sky sets the tone.

Forced to adapt, Michael begins to experiment with the food he creates – spicier, saltier, sweeter, sourer – to overcome the compromised senses of his customers, but the disease has not yet run its course.  The next stage is a sudden an uncontrollable urge to eat, to consume anything that is nearby, followed by the absolute loss of taste.  Susan tries to allay the unspoken fears – smell and taste are linked, the chemical senses, the other senses are different.  But what will happen if she is wrong?

Perfect Sense is reminiscent of Children of Men in its brutal, methodical analysis of how a society breaks down when something intrinsic changes irrevocably, and the impact of the film is as devastating as that depiction of a collapsing dystopia.  Although ostensibly science fiction, there is none of the glamour or remove that marks the more fantastical output of that genre, and the use of a narrator gives the film a literary feel, gives meaning to the tragedy, hope peeking between the cracks of despair, the only comfort as the lights go out.

All the performances are excellent, from Green’s constant measuring and evaluation of all around her, to McGregor’s optimism in the face of the overwhelming certainty that nothing will ever be the same again, and the film is lifted by Max Richter’s score, and Glasgow itself is beautifully filmed, from the Clyde docks to the classic architecture of the city.

Perfect Sense will be released worldwide later in 2011.

Monday 20th June – The Caller – Cameo

The worst sin a film can commit is tedium; that crime is made all the worse when the cast and crew are obviously competent and enthusiastic, and indeed, the performances of all concerned are excellent.  Unfortunately, The Caller is unforgivably repetitive, with no saving grace of originality to justify the running time of ninety one minutes.  Based on the short film Rose made by BBC Scotland fourteen years ago, Glasgow writer Sergio Casci has expanded his premise and moved it (via a false start in New York) to Puerto Rico, where recently divorced Mary finds herself plagued by the ringing phone in her new lodgings.

Cast with an eye to genre appeal, Mary is played by Rachelle Lefevre, Twilight‘s Victoria, who having escaped from abusive husband Steven, played by Ed Quinn, Eureka‘s Nathan Stark, finds herself courted by local college tutor John, Stephen Moyer, best known as True Blood‘s Bill Compton, while tormented by the nightly calls from a woman who calls herself Rose, voiced by Lorna Raver, Drag Me To Hell‘s crazy granny from beyond the grave, claiming to speak to her from thirty years in the past.  Investigating, Mary discovers there was a Rose who lived in the same apartment in the late seventies, but she committed suicide, hanging herself with a telephone cord.

All the pieces are in place, but the plot is essentially the same piece played over and over.  The phone rings, Rose makes a threat, Mary unplugs the phone, wanders about the house, plugs the phone back in, it rings, Rose makes a threat.  After the screening, director Matthew Parkhill spoke at length about how determined he was to make the telephone a character within the film, and how every call was filmed differently, but papering over the cracks in the script don’t mean they’re not there.

Speaking of their influences, Parkhill mentioned Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and Casci Peter Medak’s The Changeling, in the way they use isolation and everyday objects to instil terror, but instead of using these ideas in an inventive way, Mary traipses through every horror movie cliche.  Alone and afraid at night?  Hear a strange noise?  Wander about the house with all the lights off!  Afraid your violent ex is lurking outside?  Unlock the door and have a look!  Think there’s a dead body been bricked up in your cupboard for thirty years?  No, don’t call the police!  While technically proficient, the film is shot in persistent gloom, prompting the hope that during a trip to the local grocers that Mary might purchase lightbulbs.

Strangely, for all the obvious horror influences and cliches, there are also a several moments culled directly from Doctor Who – Sally Sparrow ripping away wallpaper to find a message from the past is recreated as Mary pulls back wallpaper to find the painted rose her nuisance caller tells her will be there, the way the TARDIS reroutes telephone calls through the time vortex, and John’s theory on time being a river that can be diverted, sending ripples into the future, was just a fancy way of saying “wibbly wobbly timey wimey.”  Other obvious influence are Donnie Darko, in the bleak soundtrack provided by Unkle, and the sound design lifted from David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me.

The Caller is not a bad film – when it receives DVD release, it will be absolutely adequate as an evening’s entertainment, but nothing more than that, and it is disappointing that if the team were able to create such a technically proficient and well acted piece in interesting locations with no major funding, with only a little more daring and innovation, they could have released something far superior.

Tuesday 21st June – De Día y De Noche – Filmhouse

An interesting premise and beautiful cinematography do not a good film make, no matter the good intentions of those involved.  Directed and co-written by Alejandro Molina, this Mexican science fiction film is set in a near future where overcrowding has forced the decision to split population into two.  An introduced mutation has randomly changed people into day dwellers or night dwellers, each inhabiting the world for half the time, with no interaction between the two shifts.

Leaving aside the fact that for most of the year the two sides would be unbalanced due to seasonal variances, it is true that some of the best science fiction films have sprung from that “what if?” moment, where an impossible conceit changes the world, spins it in a new and unexpected way, inviting the audience along to witness the effect it has on the people who survive the transformation.  What if women could no longer have children?  What if the whole world were struck deaf?  What if no person was allowed to live beyond the age of thirty?

I specifically mention Logan’s Run because in some ways By Day and By Night resembles that film, both in the theme of population control, in the run-down seventies vision of the future that is seen in the costumes and set design here, and even in the domed shield that covers the Great Metropolis, though it more resembles something from Tron than Logan’s Domed City.

The premise is simple, but unfortunately too simple to stretch to even ninety minutes without a lot more development and incident.  Seeking her daughter who has been taken for conversion to the opposite cycle, Sandra Echeverría’s Aurora finds she has been taken in by Manuel Balbi’s Urbano.  Tied to the different halves of the clock, for one lapses to unconsciousness as the sun rises and the other wakes, they leave the city for the outside world, despite never having spoken a single word to each other, and under the shadow and light of an eclipse, they die in each others arms.  And that is the entire film.

There is no reason, no challenge, no conflict, there is barely even any dialogue for the last half hour, and even before, every scene is drawn out with overlong supposedly significant gazes.  There are beautiful sunsets and wonderful cinematography and a trip to the coast, thundering waves hurling themselves endlessly against the rocks, but while a more engaging soundtrack would perhaps have attempted to invoke the spirit of a non-narrative film such as Baraka, here the end result is soporific and indulgent, yet manages to be the most unjustifiably self important science fiction film since Zardoz.

Thursday 23rd June – Stormhouse – Filmhouse

The military mindset is very specific: get the job done, focus on the mission.  There is no space for uncertainties, for the unknown.  There is certainly no place for the supernatural.

In an underground military base codenamed Stormhouse, an entity has been imprisoned behind a powerful electromagnetic field that runs perpetually in the eternal darkness of the ninth level.  The year is 2002, and preparation for the invasion of Iraq is underway, leaving only a skeleton staff with one focus – to determine whether the entity can be controlled, and if so, can it be used as a weapon?

Into this comes civilian Hayley, an alleged expert on such matters, for she claims she can talk to spirits.  Major Lester, commanding officer, is unconvinced of her value to the project.  “You are Whitehall’s token gesture. You may as well be an aromatherapist or reader of tea leaves.”

A collision of squaddies and the supernatural brings to mind the rough glory of Dog Soldiers, but Dan Turner’s film plays out with an altogether different tone, with the only laughter of the nervous kind.  Needless to say, under supervision of an unstable officer desperate for results, the experiment does not go well.

There is an air of unease throughout the film.  Isolated in an all male environment, Hayley is in a vulnerable position, and as communication is cut off for security reasons and the military personnel reveal the methods they are employing to coax the entity, it is apparent that as a witness, she will be expendable if she does not give full cooperation.

The obvious shocks of the film come from knowing that there is something lurking in the dark but not knowing when it will leap out, but there is also a constant awareness that nobody can be trusted.  As the project unravels, the soldiers do not play by any rules other than their own, and additional mistrust is introduced by the entity, which can move from body to body, or manifest itself with poltergeist like rage.

Unfortunately, Katie Flynn’s Hayley, the window that opens the film to the audience, is the major weakness.  While good at being terrified in the second half of the film, her character is painfully unconvincing.  While claiming to have had supernatural experiences for most of her life, her delivery is so detached from the events of the film that it is easier to believe she has been faking it, and it is impossible to believe she would be allowed access to a top secret military base without some form of screening, training or induction.  Fortunately, when the time comes to start screaming, it becomes apparent how she secured the role.

While not groundbreaking or innovative, Stormhouse does have some interesting moments, but would have been stronger had it focused on the ideas that are touched on but swiftly moved past.  As Hayley points out, physical evidence of the existence of a soul would fundamentally change both science and religion, and a later argument over the treatment of prisoners, ending with the exchange “Are we America now?”, “America gets results,” could have given the film greater depth had it been explored.

Overall, it is a swift, bloody horror that was filmed and edited efficiently with the sole purpose of making the audience jump in all the right places, and that it does well.  The location is well used, the sense of claustrophobia, viewed in a darkened cinema, is palpable, and the sense of menace from the unseen entity is matched by the unpredictability of three of the characters – Grant Masters’ Major Lester, Grahame Fox’s Lieutenant Groves and Munir Khairdin as Salim, the prisoner they offer to the entity as a plaything.

Having premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, Stormhouse is currently seeking a distribution deal.

Exclusive interviews with cast and crew of Stormhouse are now online in the features section.

And our previous favourites…

In this space last year, I noted that several of the best science fiction films from previous years had never received wide UK distribution, but were available on Region One DVD. Fortunately, this year, my look back is slightly more positive.

The hot ticket at last year’s festival was Monsters (dir. Gareth Edwards) which received national release prior to winning three of its six nominations at the British Independent Film Awards. Now available on DVD and bluray, a standalone sequel Re-Entry is in production, and Gareth is now in Hollywood preparing a new Godzilla movie.

While only peripherally of the supernatural, stylish Western The Last Rites of Ransom Pride (dir. Tiller Russell) caught our attention because it features Underworld’s Scott Speedman and True Blood’s Lizzie Caplan, and has recently been released on DVD.

The People vs George Lucas (dir. Alexandre O. Philippe) is still on the festival circuit, thoroughly entertaining all who see it.

Anyone who has seen the trailer for the Greek mythology epic Immortals, starring new Superman Henry Cavill and Twilight’s Kellan Lutz would do well to check out director Tarsem Singh’s acclaimed last film, The Fall which premiered at Edinburgh in 2008, starring Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace, also available on DVD and bluray.

Follow the links for our reports from the Edinburgh Film Festival for 2010 and 2012



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