Diary of a Geek Week at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2013

2013_part_2_shooting bigfootNow in its 67th continuous year, the second under artistic director Chris Fujiwara, the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year boasts high profile premieres including forthcoming major releases The East and The Conjuring, continues its dedicated horror strand Night Moves and also offers a retrospective of the work of director Richard Fleischer whose legendary genre films included 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green. Here we offer our analysis of the briefest sampling of the almost 150 films on offer, those of most interest to our discerning genre oriented readers.

Friday 21st June – Shooting Bigfoot – Filmhouse

Screening as part of the Night Moves strand, this documentary from award winning filmmaker Morgan Matthews features the director himself in a prominent role, first explaining his lifelong fascination with Bigfoot and the associated myths, the Sasquatch, the Tsul ‘Kalu, the Yeti, then as instigator and interviewer in three separate Bigfoot hunts across America which are the prime focus of the film. In his opening narration, Matthews confirms his own increasing disillusionment as he grew up, as footage from alleged sightings was revealed to be fraudulent and credulity became increasingly difficult to maintain.

Yet Bigfoot is still big business, in particular for the hunters Ric Dyer and his former associate Tom Biscardi, both of whom were involved in previous claims of evidence in the form of a Bigfoot carcass which was proven to be false, with each accusing the other of a widely of the impropriety. Biscardi alleges to have seen Bigfoot six times in his life yet has no evidence and is defensive and aggressive when questioned about his involvement with Dyer, an attitude which continues through the majority of his screen time, berating his wife in person and on the phone, browbeating supposed witnesses into statements that he controls, demanding that certain arrangements during the hunt are made without Matthews present.

2013_part_2_shooting bigfoot 1It is clear from the outset that while Dyer matches the ego of the belligerent Biscardi, he is not so skilled in manipulation nor persuasion. Claiming to be a master tracker, Matthews asks about his qualifications, to the on-camera response “Can you get a qualification to be an asshole filmmaker?” Overweight and undersmart, Dyer’s avenue of investigation relates to a 911 call in San Antonio, Texas, where a homeless woman living in the woods claimed to have made a sighting, advising that it “smelled bad” and devoured a deer carcass before fleeing.

It is in these woods where the tragedy of the film is revealed, the homeless and hopeless population living in tents in the woods, the impossibility of improving their lives made clear and the desperation of Dyer, with a wife and young daughter to feed, to stake his claim on the riches a sighting caught on camera would bring his family, or better still, a dead specimen, as his unsettling penchant for firearms he is ill suited to handling proves.

2013_part_2_shooting bigfoot 2In Portsmouth, Ohio, matters are no better for Dallas and Wayne, veteran hunters with a drawer full of what they loosely term “research” to accompany their “Wall of Weird” photography exhibit, which resembles nothing so much as a gallery of out of focus vegetation. Both out of work, neither in the best of health and neither getting younger, they primal scream into the hills, vainly trying to communicate with the elusive beasts which Dallas claims to have a special affinity with due to the sheep bone he states without any hint of ironly is grafted into his skull.

The scientific process and adherence to standards of evidence are of no more concern back with the extended Biscardi family in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where special audio equipment is brought out to search for “low frequency hum UFOs” intent on spoiling the hunt, leading Matthews to point out that what is flying overhead is apparently an aeroplane. “Why do you say it looks like a plane when it could be a UFO disguised as a plane?”

Less is made of the creature itself than the driving obsession of those who hunt for it, desperate to establish themselves as men of importance seeking a shortcut to fame and fortune, the promise of the American dream that is as apparently as extinct as Bigfoot itself, if it indeed ever existed in the first place.

Saturday 22nd June – Upstream Colour – Cineworld

2013_part_2_upstream colour posterAbstract scenes are linked together by repeated symbols and gestures, as a blue powdery deposit is collected from the leaves of a plant, and larvae are similarly collected. Are they the source of the deposit or are they being dosed with the substance, a vessel in which it is concentrated and activated?

A woman is targeted, dragged from a bar, rendered unconscious and forced to swallow a larvae; she is kept captive, possibly drugged, possibly hypnotised, her mind engaged in menial tasks before the growing worm she has incubated is removed from her body, transplanted into a pig.

Listed in the festival programme as “a sci-fi thriller,” the opening scenes where the intriguing premise is set up is largely abandoned as soon as Kris awakes in her car on the highway, her memory and her bank accounts drained. Unable to explain what has happened to her, she drifts aimlessly through meaningless scenes, directionless, yet drawn to a stranger she sometimes sees on her commute, Jeff, a man similarly affected.

Despite the lost time and funds, the scars on her body, the blood in her apartment, Kris inexplicably fails to summon the police, nor is she able to perceive the observer who tails her and the many others who have been through the process; possibly this is due to a post-hypnotic suggestion, though Upstream Colour does not deign to provide anything so common as explanations. The sole dramatic scene, as Kris begins to unravel her memory while swimming laps, is notable only in that it breaks the otherwise relentless monotony.

Stylistically it desperately wants to grow in the same field as Terence Malick’s Tree of Life but while those characters were fascinating in their fractured glory, here Kris and Jeff, Amy Seimetz and writer/director Shane Carruth himself, show no aspect that is appealing. Before the experiment they may have been warm, rounded individuals, but after the process they cling to each other desperately, possibly trying to compensate for the absences left in them, but as we have no prior knowledge of them, all we are shown are two damaged individuals, needy and fractious.

Carruth’s first film was the challenging Primer, a film of fractured structure which demanded the audience pay attention, possibly over multiple viewings, but Upstream Colour does not carry sufficient narrative to unravel the proffered mystery, much of the film unfolding in silence and tiresome significant looks between the characters. Even in a Lynch film, while the meaning may be cryptic the visuals are mesmerising, but this resembles nothing so much as an expensive advertising campaign.

While the undoubtedly excellent Seimetz may have been fully briefed on her character’s story, coached through the meaning of every event and gesture, the refusal to share that knowledge locks the audience out of what could be an exploration of a variety of pertinent issues – the use of animals as food, how modern city life requires humans to behave as caged animals, the need for real connection in a world of technological solipsism, pharmaceutical trials, medical consent, xenotransplantation, alternative therapies, small business versus corporations – but what is left is frustratingly less than the sum of it’s beautifully crafted parts.

Saturday 22nd June – Lunarcy! – Cineworld

If enthusiasm were enough to carry us to the Moon, we would be there already. This is the unavoidable conclusion after viewing this uplifting documentary from Simon Ennis, with participants including those who were caught up in the Moon fever of the space programme of the sixties, those who were not even born when the last men visited the Moon, and even one of those rare specimens, astronaut Alan Bean, who in November 1969 as part of the Apollo 12 mission set foot in the Oceanus Procellarum.

The Moon may not be the most practical of destinations, with no atmosphere and with a surface constantly bathed in harsh radiation, but as our closest astronomical neighbour it has captured the dreams of humanity from prehistory and remains a vital anchor in our ambition to the stars, yet since 1972 only unmanned probes have visited the surface.

Christopher Carson of the Luna Project is big in his ambitions: “I want to go to the Moon and live there and I want to go now,” he states as he travels the country to raise awareness and funds, attending science fiction conventions and making presentations at high schools. His parents are supportive, aware that he has struggled with Aspergers but happy that the mental focus which can result from condition has proven to be an asset. His mother, Joy, expresses a sense of betrayal at the diminishing ambition of the space programme, reminding that in 1969 it was promised that there would be vacations on the Moon by 2000, and it is clear Christopher has inherited her sense of purpose.

2013_part_2_lunarcy_ 5 _alan bean_As editor of the Moon Miners’ Manifesto and secretary of the Moon Society, Peter Kokh has similarly dedicated to an ambition that is not for himself but for his species, and his interests are both practical, with a diorama demonstrating how Moon settlements could be built to offer both protection and stunning views, and artistic, suggesting regolith impressionism and Lunar musical forms.

As one of only twelve men out of countless billions to have walked on the surface of the Moon, the perspective of Captain Alan Bean (retired) is different, and he tries to recapture the wonder of what he has seen through his paintings, his only regret being that had he rolled around in the moondust before boarding the capsule, the captured particles would have been priceless.

2013_part_2_lunarcy_ 8 _christopher carson_The lure of space was so great for Jaymie Matthews that he lied about his age to enter a competition that resulted in him being an ambassador for his country at the launch of Apollo 17, and on his trip home he was custodian of the “goodwill rock” given to the people of Canada, one of many granted to the nations of the Earth, for no individual can own a piece of the Moon.

That perspective would be disputed by Dennis Hope of the Lunar Embassy Commission, who claims to be the owner of the Moon as a whole, saying the failure of the United Nations to respond to his communication when he lodged his intention to sell packages of land on the Moon amounted to their tacit agreement that he could go ahead. “Owning the Moon is a tremendous burden” he states as he prepares certificates of Moon land registration for mailing to his eager customers.

Why people would pay real money for a document of dubious authenticity entitling them to a piece of land they can never visit is not explored, but it is clear throughout this celebration of eccentrics, enthusiasts and entrepreneurs and the lure of the Moon does not diminish, and the dedication to their dreams of all the participants cannot be doubted.

Saturday 22nd June – Kuroyuri Danchi – Cineworld

Also in the Night Moves strand of the festival is the latest from director Hideo Nakata, best known for both the original Japanese versions of The Ring and Dark Water and the American remake of the latter and the sequel to the remake of the former. Returned to his native land, he brings us The Complex, the tale of student nurse Asuka Ninomiya, who has just moved into the titular housing along with her parents and younger brother.

The key to any haunted house film is the location, and here the Kuroyuri Housing Complex is stark, grey and realist in a quiet and inoffensive suburb, anonymous housing where the sense of unease and disconnection comes from the framing of Asuko, always separate from her family, her parents uncomprehending when she points out they repeat conversations.

2013_part_2_the-complex 2Teased by her classmates that her new residence is cursed, Asuka finds both companionship and tragedy, befriending a young boy who spends his days in the sandpit her bedroom window overlooks, but also discovering the body of her elderly neighbour who had died several days before, his hand scratching at the adjoining wall where Asuka’s bed lies.

The innate privacy of the Japanese is contrasted with the trust; where doors open outwards and doors are never locked, and as apartment 401 is cleared out, Asuka meets Sasahara, who warns her not to respond to the noises she hears through the wall at night, that while time may have stopped for the dead, it is important that the living should not interact with them.

2013_part_2_the-complex 3In a society where the spirits of ancestors are believed to coexist with the living, this is a very conventional ghost story, unremarkable and low on atmosphere, originality or frights, more interesting for its social commentary, Sasahara telling Asuka that “It’s not so unusual” for the old to be forgotten, her teacher affirming it with a tale of a paralysed man who starved to death when his wife died.

The generic plot is not lifted by the mundane production, both Atsuko Maeda and Hiroki Narimiya giving personable performances which give way to screeching hysteria in the final act as the lighting scheme moves from watery ripples to Creepshow styled lurid gels, resorting to gratingly intrusive shock tactics in an attempt to lift the finale.

Thursday 27th June – Outpost: Rise of the Spetsnaz

Life is full of coincidences; it does not mean, as Auric Goldfinger once suggested, that they are the result of enemy action, though it does seem an oddity that the scheduling of the festival resulted in not one but two Nazi zombie films scheduled over two nights, perhaps inviting unfair comparisons, for both are very different beasts.

Certainly Rise of the Spetsnaz had the advantages; it was shown first, played to an enthusiastic home crowd, and could claim, if not to have originated the concept (who remembers 1977’s Shock Waves from the early generations of home video rentals?) but at least to have developed it sooner, with the original Outpost having been released in 2008, ahead of even the more widely distributed Dead Snow.

2013_part_2_outpost 1It is the Eastern Front, March 1945, and a small squad of Russian troops are preparing to ambush a small convoy of enemy soldiers, but what they find indicates that somewhere in the forest nearby is a German base not marked on any map. More sinister is the dead body they discover in the back of the transport and the syringe filled with an unknown liquid. Why would an emaciated corpse need an armed guard?

Before they are able to form a plan, German reinforcements arrive and Dolokhov and his men are forced deeper into the woods, pursued by soldiers and something else, a man who is kept on a leash and moves like an animal, hunting and killing with his bare hands, sniper Potrovsky torn apart by the rage of the creature.

2013_part_2_outpost 2Produced with minimal resources, the early stages of the film require little more than the environment and the commitment of an obviously dedicated cast, capturing the feel of a traditional war movie with a kinetic edge more akin to Dog Soldiers before the survivors are taken underground to the sinister laboratory complex where the experiments begin.

It is safe to say that Rise of the Spetsnaz has no pretensions to grandeur, and there are moments when the numerous fight scenes are in danger of becoming repetitive, but the plentiful violence veers towards comical excess, and it is clear the aim of Kieran Parker, producer of all three Outpost films and here making his directorial debut, is to entertain.

2013_part_2_outpost 3At the premiere, Parker mentioned the influence of Where Eagles Dare, and while the labyrinth cannot hope to compete with Schloss Adler, they are nonetheless impressive, the corridors and heavy doors reminiscent of the foundry of Fiorina 161 in Alien 3, and almost seventy years on, there is still a primal satisfaction to be had from watching the Third Reich taking a beating.

“Men like you can play god,” Bryan Larkin’s ruggedly resolute Dolokhov tells Iván Kamarás sneering psychotic scientist Fyodor, “but it will always be a peasant who digs your grave.”

Outpost: Rise of the Spetsnaz will be released during the Hallowe’en season

Friday 28th June – Hawking – Filmhouse

There can be no doubting that Stephen Hawking is one of the most highly respected scientists and thinkers of our modern times, but such is his achievement, so accustomed are we to his appearance and manner of communication, it is too easy to overlook the daily struggle which he has faced for fifty years since his diagnosis with motor neurone disease, and the inspiration he gives beyond the science community to the millions of disabled across the world.

In this feature length documentary, written and narrated by Professor Hawking himself, director Stephen Finnigan is given unprecedented access to family and friends, his sister and cousin, his first wife Jane, his care assistants, his colleagues including Roger Penrose and Kip Thorne, even his publishers, recounting the genesis of the book which took him from renowned researched to a publicly recognised figure and in-demand speaker, A Brief History of Time.

2013_part_2_hawking briefhistorytimeComing from an family of intellectuals (“The Highgate intelligentsia“), it was no surprise that Stephen exhibited followed in his parents footsteps, and elder sister Mary recalls that even as a child he was curious and capable, recounting that when their father made her a dollhouse, Stephen installed electricity in it, but also that he didn’t like to lose, and when she beat him at draughts he learned to play chess.

Although it was during his time at Oxford that his illness first manifested, a fact he kept from his parents as long as he could, his regret from that time is that he did not work harder, as the ethic expected students to be brilliant without effort, and he found it all too easy to allow himself to be swept along with the partying lifestyle which has come full circle in his role as a public speaker: “If the number of champagne receptions that one attends is a measure of success, it would seem that I have made it.”

Almost given equal screen time is Jane Hawking, whom he met while at Cambridge, courting her while researching his PhD, Jane typing his thesis for him. While she knew what she was getting with both his illness and his career – their honeymoon in 1965 was a physics conference in upstate New York – it was the media circus and increasing public demands following the publication of A Brief History which required her to put herself first. Although over two decades have passed since their divorce, each still speaks of the other with affection and warmth, their friendship changed continuing though changed.

2013_part_2_hawking in flightWhat is perhaps even more surprising than his achievement is the sense of humour and determination which push him forwards. In the word of one of his assistants, “He would die in a care home. He needs his freedom. He loves the danger of flying, he’s been in submarines, he wants to go into space,” and Hawking himself confirms “Keeping an active mind has been essential to my survival.”

Despite discoveries relating to cosmology, the big bang and the properties of black holes, the Professor muses whether his is as famous for his wheelchair as his work, but the man Kip Thorne describes as “The most stubborn man I’ve ever met,” who almost died of pneumonia during the editing process of that book, makes clear his opinion that “Religion has no place in physics,” a statement at odds with the often conciliatory wording of the book, which may have been an appeasement to the publisher in a time when outspoken atheism was frowned upon.

With ten million copies sold in editions translated into forty languages, Hawking no longer needs to justify himself, yet nor does he show any sign of slowing down. In his own words from the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics, “There is no boundary to endeavour.” The only downside to this fascinating and inspirational documentary is the realisation of how little so many of us have achieved in comparison to this great man, and with so little excuse.

Friday 28th June – Frankenstein’s Army – Filmhouse

2013_part_2_frankenstein_s army posterIn the debut feature of director Richard Raaphorst, an experienced storyboard and concept artist, it is the visual which is emphasised, from the opening scene of soldiers bearing the triumphant hammer and sickle banners aloft as the swastika is trampled into the mud, even before the bold red faux-Cyrillic credits have rolled, the film viewed through the lens of a filmmaker assigned to a Russian unit pushing into East Germany as the Nazis fall back.

Stumbling across the charred skeleton of a strange chimera beast caught in barbed wire on the outskirts of a village, the soldiers take shelter in the buildings as they wait for reinforcements to arrive, but are attacked by a surgically altered creature which kills their commanding officer. Venturing into the catacombs, they encounter sights stranger still, corpses patched together with instruments of death and machines of war, a terrible new force waiting to be unleashed.

2013_part_2_frankenstein_s army 4It quickly becomes apparent that for the most part the soldiers are not brave or honourable men, but instead of attempting to build interest in them and their fate, the slight script opts for boorish, aggressive and juvenile behaviour, substituting swearing for dialogue and misunderstanding the concept of conflict between characters for arguing, where even a request to start a generator is greeted with a contemptuous response.

Unfortunately the found footage genre is an entirely inappropriate storytelling device for this film, relying as it does on the audience’s complicit belief that what is being shown on screen is genuine film from war torn Europe in the mid 1940s, a conceit the film wilfully ignores with modern camera styles and editing, colour picture quality far beyond that of the period, synchronised sound and the majority of the cast speaking (albeit strongly accented) English.

2013_part_2_frankenstein_s army 15It is in the realisation of the designs where most of effort has been expended, and while the execution of the mechanical monstrosities is excellent, they are too obviously derivative of Bioshock and Dead Space as though costumed by Jeunet and Caro with a Nazi fetish substituting for Gallic charm, and while the feel is more of a game than a film there is an unpleasant tone which is pervasive, coming into focus when one of Raaphorst’s few attempts at humour is preceded and followed by one of the officers beating an innocent woman as though misogyny were part of the slapstick.

2013_part_2_frankenstein_s army 12Of the cast, only Joshua Sasse seems in any way present, making the best of the minimal role and feeling the horror of the moment rather than stumbling around like a local extra thrust into period costume. As the narrative is passed to the hysterical cameraman any semblance of credulity is abandoned with the revelation that the title is not an allusion, this genuinely is the makeshift laboratory of the grandson of the titular scientist, though his ultimate goal is more akin Frank N Furter (“Do you think it was a mistake, splitting the brain between the two of them?”) than Shelley’s original conception.

Frankenstein’s Army is not one which stands up in battle, an interesting idea which if developed could have been a passable schlock horror, but any potential is left withering amongst endless scenes of unlikeable drones stumbling through fields and tunnels to their inevitable deaths. The only point of merit of the film is the likely unintentional reminder of how primitive wartime medical aid is, how barbaric the surgery; ironic that a fantasy makes clear how awful the reality of war is.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival continues until Sunday 30th June

www.edfilmfest.org.uk

 

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