Diary of a Geek Week at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2014

2014pt2_JimMickle_cold in july quadNow in its 68th year, the Edinburgh International Film Festival is the longest continuously running film festival in the world, and has long been a champion of bold and innovative filmmaking, embracing work from new and established directors, this year showcasing the new thriller from Stake Land’s Jim Mickle with Cold in July and Cabin Fever’s Eli Roth celebrating the films which inspired him with The Green Inferno alongside new documentaries from The People vs. George Lucas’ Alexandre O Philippe, now examining the zombie phenomenon which is itself represented at the festival by Miss Zombie and Life After Beth, and a celebration of the life and work of the Dick Miller, the face of a hundred B-movies.

Cold In July – Friday 20th June – Cineworld

2014pt2_JimMickle_jm cap 2While always open minded in our interests, a noir thriller is not the usual haunt of Geek Chocolate, but as the latest work from Jim Mickle, a director who has previously impressed with both Stake Land and We Are What We Are, there is good reason for it to have crossed our radar, and he has crafted this film from the same mould which brought such acclaim to the horror work for which he has previously been known. Based on the novel by Joe R Lansdale and scripted by Mickle along with regular collaborator Nick Damici, the project was originally intended to be their second collaboration rather than the fourth but the long gestation period has allowed Mickle to refine his craft and further his reputation, giving him access to greater funding and high profile talent to create this assured film.

Set in East Texas in 1989, family man Richard Dane (Dexter‘s Michael C Hall) is awoken late at night by his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) who believes that someone is in their house; terrified, Richard fumbles in the dark to find and load the gun they keep hidden in the closet, out of reach of their young son Jordan. Moving through the house, he finds the stranger and calls a warning, but when Richard is startled the gun goes off, killing the intruder.

2014pt2_JimMickle_jm cap 6The police are summoned and Richard is assured by the senior officer Ray Price (Damici) that while ther intruder wasn’t armed Richard wasn’t to know that, and that any investigation will merely be a formality: “He’s a wanted felon, you’re an upstanding citizen with no record.” Shocked at what has happened, Richard attempts to return to the routine of his life but finds he is the subject of unwanted attention, his sudden small town celebrity an annoyance rather than a concern until he learns that the father of the deceased Freddy Russell is a career criminal who has just been released on parole.

So begins a tense playoff between Richard and Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) who has approached Richard and has been seen at Jordan’s school, but has not threatened the family and so the police cannot offer action unless he does so directly, but using the Dane family as bait Russell is apprehended and incarcerated. Believing their nightmare to be almost over, Richard attends the police station to finalise the paperwork on his statement when he catches sight of a wall of “wanted” posters including that of Freddy Russell, the picture apparently someone other than the man who Richard killed in his living room.

2014pt2_JimMickle_jm cap 4It is a given in film noir that nobody is to be trusted, and while the thriller genre may be a departure for Mickle he has built his career on his ability to create a dense atmosphere of tension and uncertainty, of the possibility of imminent danger, and as Richard finds he has to ally himself with Russell and his private detective friend Jim Bob Luke in order to discover who is has set both him and Russell up as pawns in a larger game Mickle proves that his style is as adaptable as his cast.

Originally published in 1989, this was an era before the internet and cellphones which Mickle has recreated faithfully in the style of the cinema of that era. Where Richard Kelly’s The Box was not a pastiche of the seventies but instead emulated the long takes and wide lenses of that era, so Mickle has opted for the stylish lighting and moody characterisation of his chosen period, the result resembling nothing so much as a lost John Carpenter film with a pulsing synth soundtrack provided by Jeff Grace, with the casting of a genuine icon of that decade in person of former Miami Vice star Don Johnson as Jim Bob Luke sealing the deal.

2014pt2_JimMickle_jm cap 5Holding her own as the only prominent woman in a heavyweight cast of formidable men, Shaw is no wilting wallflower, a strong woman who does whatever is required to protect her family without flinching even when washing blood from the walls of her home. Conversely, the normally affable Wyatt Russell plays against type with the worst depravities in a film where every character finds themselves compromised, where despite his best intentions Richard finds even his young son now sees guns as a way to hold power following the shooting.

With some loose ends left hanging precariously the narrative feels fragmented and does not resolve entirely satisfactorily but the impression is that this is by choice, that life does not wrap up easily and that some questions are too dangerous to pursue to their ultimate end, and if the film inspires some to seek out the original source novel if they wish to learn more of the characters, who is to say that is a bad thing? Mickle and Damici are currently in the process of developing a television series based on Lansdale’s later novels and an open invitation to Johnson to resume his role, the hopefully temporary loss to horror cinema could well be a huge gain to television.

Cold In July is on general release from Friday 27th June

The Green Inferno – Friday 20th June – Filmhouse

While his undeniably grim debut feature Cabin Fever was leavened by its twisted sense of humour, Eli Roth’s followup Hostel shifted him so firmly to the ghetto of torture porn that the announcement of his first full length feature since 2007’s Hostel II was in no way a cause for celebration, yet the writer/director has created an ambitious and challenging film which is carried by strong performances from his lead ensemble and the support of natives of the Amazonian jungle where it was filmed.

2014pt2_EIFF_green 1Woken early by the protesters outside their dorm window, neither Justine (Lorenza Izzo) nor her roomate Kaycee (Sky Ferreira) are impressed; “The only thing they care about is looking like they care,” Justine says dismissively of those demonstrating solidarity with the university janitors denied healthcare. Yet their leader catches Justine’s eye, pointing out the handsome Alejandro (Ariel Levy) to Kaycee who is taunting the hunger strikers with a bagel. “Creepy or charismatic?” “The two go hand in hand.”

Motivated to take action following a lecture in which their tutor lists the multiple cultures across the globe where female genital mutilation is practiced, Justine is at first dismissed by Alejandro as a dilettante, but she persuades him her conviction is genuine in and joins the group as they set off for the Peruvian Amazon where a firm is tearing up the jungle to access natural gas reserves, Alejandro explaining that within two weeks the natives will be killed by the militia employed by the firm and the village bulldozed.

2014pt2_EIFF_green 2Alejandro’s plan is simple: “The only way you can change people is with the threat of embarrassment. You must shame them.” With fifteen websites standing by to stream the hacked satellite upload and an army of followers to tweet the links, they will film the great yellow metal beasts which tear up the trees and the earth with no care given to the irreparable devastation, show the world what is happening.

Astonishingly, the plan comes off, the threat of bad publicity enough to buy the natives time but travelling back their plane develops a major fault. Falling from the sky and torn apart as it collides with the treeline, it is only after the survivors pull themselves from the wreckage that their ordeal begins as the tribe they believed they had come to protect emerges from the foliage.

2014pt2_EIFF_green 4The early scenes an adventure shared with the audience, the frame opened up to expose the grandeur of the scenery in a way the home video style of the recent Afflicted could never hope to manage, the cinematography of Antonio Quercia reminding more of Baraka than the grindhouse cinema in which Roth languished until recently, Manuel Riveiro’s majestic soundtrack becomes urgent as the increasingly desperate survivors realise both their situation and the true colours of their arrogant leader, but it is the work of renowned effects guru Greg Nicotero which remains in the memory, red flesh and white bone splayed open against the lush foliage.

As graphic and vicious as the Hostel films were The Green Inferno is more horrifying and disturbing because these are not spoiled ciphers on a student break, they are people the audience has come to know, though as with Roth‘s earlier work it is their own privilege and sense of entitlement which has blinded them to the danger they have strayed into, judging other cultures by the standards of their homeland and unable to accommodate the changed environment they are now in.

2014pt2_EIFF_green 3From Justine’s father Charles (Richard Burgi) telling her that third world countries can’t be invaded simply because their values are different as he dines on wine and steak to the sound of a string quartet onwards, their hypocrisy is evident in every New York scene, Justine and Kaycee enjoying their pizza, the bohemian café where the activists meet, none of them involved with the preparation of what they consume other than the money with which they buy the service, a shocking contrast to the elaborate rituals they encounter so intimately in the jungle, helpless with no common language, no hope of explaining themselves or begging for release.

Slightly overlong in the final act and with the firm caveat that the unrepentant brutality of The Green Inferno means that it is not a film for everyone it is undoubtedly Eli Roth’s best film in over a decade, raising questions about the responsibilities of the developed world to those whose lands contain valuable resources, the phenomenon of “slacktivism” where the dedication to positive change amounts to sharing links to online petitions, and specifically addressing female genital mutilation, still a taboo in mainstream cinema which even the boldest horror rarely approaches.

Life After Beth – Thursday 26th June – Cineworld

2014pt2_EIFF_beth posterZach Orman looks out of place as he tries to purchase black napkins for the gathering at the home of his late girlfriend Beth Slocum, who died from a snakebite as she hiked alone through the forest. Despite his composed appearance, Zach is not coping. He’s quit his band and at home he doesn’t eat, sitting in his room alone, the insensitive comments of his elder brother Kyle not helping; preferring to spend time with Beth’s family, he gets stoned with her father Maury (John C Reilly) over chess while her grieving mother Geenie (Molly Shannon) wails “I didn’t take enough pictures” as she boxes Beth’s belongings.

2014pt2_EIFF_beth 1Zach confesses to Maury that he and Beth were having problems, but Maury counsels him not to let that define his memories of the relationship, but when the Slocums suddenly refuse him entry to their house resulting in a confrontation with Kyle in his capacity as Briar Grove Security, Zach becomes more distressed. Trying to comprehend why they have shut him out, he returns and catches sight of Beth in the house, alive, being ushered out of sight by her parents. Forcing his way in he finds Beth is confused, with no memory of the preceding week.

Asking Beth to give them a moment alone with Zach they explain she returned home late one night, Geenie proclaiming the resurrection a miracle while Zach, in turmoil having been reunited with the girlfriend he has just grieved for, raises the zombie question only to be shouted down. Resuming their relationship under strict conditions (no daytime excursions where Beth might be seen, no alerting her to her recent demise), Zach’s happiness begins to decay as Beth’s already altered demeanour worsens, building an earth lined lair in the attic and exhibiting violent mood swings and demands.

2014pt2_EIFF_beth 3As would be expected of the assembled cast, all are excellent in their insubstantial roles, with only Safety Not Guaranteed’s Aubrey Plaza given a part which changes significantly as she becomes less Beth and more zombie, but having already played the part in Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines, Devil’s Knot and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 the hugely talented Dane DeHaan should be offered roles beyond socially awkward youths who don’t communicate well with their peers, but neither are John C Reilly nor Anna Kendrick well used. As trigger happy Kyle it is in fact Matthew Gray Gubler who is the surprise, most often the smartest man in the room on Criminal Minds and here playing the dumbest man on the whole block.

2014pt2_EIFF_beth 4Treading a muddled line between relationship drama and romantic comedy with elements of horror arising later as Beth’s appetite for her boyfriend, or indeed any flesh, becomes more urgent, without the zombie gimmick the debut feature of writer/director Jeff Baena, who also co-wrote 2004’s I Heart Huckabees with David O Russell, would be simply be the story of a young man trying to extricate himself from an unstable and possessive relationship.

A low key apocalypse, the humour and horror both increase as more bodies rise from the dead, but like the smooth jazz which soothes the fractious corpses it is diverting rather than engaging, a pleasing rather than outstanding affair, neither smart nor sharp enough to haul itself from the grave of its own making. Less obviously derivative than Warm Bodies, the scattered moments where the film does find its feet are insufficient to carry it, the end result as beige as the napkins Zach had to settle for in the opening scene, possibly indicating that the zombie phenomenon may finally be shuffling to its overdue end.

Scintilla (The Hybrid) – Thursday 26th June – Filmhouse

2014pt2_EIFF_scintilla posterFor Jim Powell it begins when he is unexpectedly released from prison where he is held and tortured, his release negotiated by an unknown but obviously wealthy party who requires him for a mission. His old team assembled, they are dispatched to the East Assentia Enclave where civil war has raged for five years, to enter an underground research facility and extract a scientist, Doctor Irvine, and any materials which they can recover, then torch the building.

2014pt2_EIFF_scintilla 2Powell is an old hand and this, unfazed by the distant sound of gunfire in the dawn sky as he eats his sandwich, listening to the disturbed crows calling from the trees; he has seen action, but like the rest of his aging team he has also seen better days.

The only problems are the minefield they must cross to reach the base, the Chechen rebels who occupy the former Soviet army barracks under which the Scintilla project is located and the distrust running within the team; their security specialist Spencer is an outsider assigned to them by their employer and their guide Healy’s knowledge of the base is more than can be accounted for by intelligence gathering.

2014pt2_EIFF_scintilla 3The crow is an image that appears everywhere, on a shrine in the woods next to a decapitated icon, on the jacket of the biker patrolling the treeline, on the outer wall of the barracks when they arrive, but despite the attempts to pass themselves off as the enemy as they penetrate their isolated stronghold to retrieve an asset, this is not Where Crows Dare, for instead of the ascent to Schloss Adler it is the long descent down the darkened staircase and through the catacombs guarded by the sinister Mole Rats, their helmets resembling nothing so much as giant insect heads, concealing the alterations Doctor Irvine has made to them.

Filmed in Yorkshire under the direction of Billy O’Brien, the ensemble cast are lead by the experienced and reliable performers John Lynch (who also appeared in O’Brien’s previous feature, 2005’s Isolation) as Powell and Ned Dennehy (Grabbers) as his drunken right hand man Doug Harris, but despite the lack of challenge in the material the cast make their best of it.

2014pt2_EIFF_scintilla 4The only true weak link is Beth Winslet, her interpretation of Doctor Irvine seeming to come from another era of science fiction, though she is done no favours by her wardrobe that the 1970’s forgot nor her underwritten role, willing to trade morality, ethics and allegiance for the guarantee that she can pursue her research unrestricted no matter what the outcome.

Despite five credited writers (story by Steve Clark and Josh Golga, screenplay by Rob Green, G P Taylor and O’Brien) it is the predictable storyline which undermines the combined creative effort, Irvine’s directive of “weaponising science” reading like something out of a fifties B-movie given modern trappings in the video game atmosphere of stumbling around torchlit tunnels as monsters leap out. The revelation of Irvine’s hybrid Goethe is visually impressive despite the pulp science fiction reasoning behind his creation but it is only a matter of counting down the moments until the inevitable rampage begins. With erratic pacing a running time at least twenty minutes longer than it needs to be, at least when the final battle unfolds the effects work, both prosthetic and digital, is of impressive quality for a low budget British feature.

Scintilla was retitled The Hybrid for its DVD release

Honeymoon – Friday 27th June – Cineworld

On his first date with Bea, Paul got food poisoning. Right before their planned camping trip, Bea became so ill they had to cancel, so Paul put up the tent in their bedroom. Whatever happens, they get over it and they keep moving. They have each other. What they don’t have on their honeymoon, to be spent in the isolated cottage owned by Bea’s family, is modern conveniences. “Who needs cell service or Internet when you can keep happy with your favourite VHS?” Paul asks sarcastically as he views the retro chic of their accommodation. Besides, they have each other, and that’s all they need.

2014pt2_EIFF_honeymoon 1“It’s dark and scary out there”, Bea laughs as she runs back to the bedroom and gets under the covers. More outdoorsy than her new husband, Bea is at home on the water the next morning, but wherever she goes he will follow, and together they’re happy in their hideaway in the forest by the lake. Out of season, they think they are the only people in the area, but they are mistaken, though the man who runs the local restaurant is unwelcoming, threatening even, until he and Bea realise that they once knew each other years before. When Will’s wife Annie joins them her behaviour is equally odd; disjointed, twitchy, she tells them they should leave.

That night, Paul awakes to find that Bea is gone from their bedroom; he runs into the woods and finds her, disoriented, confused, shivering in the cold. He gets her back to the house but she just wishes to brush it off as sleepwalking; he’s actually more upset than Bea is, but she has no memory of being lost, only of waking in the darkness to find Paul already by her side. She tries to dismiss the incident, but Paul soon notices the changes in her behaviour, distant, forgetful, increasingly irritable when he tries to ask her about how she came to be wondering alone in the night…

2014pt2_EIFF_honeymoon 4Introduced at the festival by debut director Leigh Janiak, accompanied by stars Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones‘ Ygritte) and Harry Treadaway (Penny Dreadful‘s Victor Frankenstein), she admits the influence of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, particularly the 1978 remake by Philip Kaufman, but it is mixed with the body horror of early David Cronenberg, Shivers and The Brood. Carried wholly by the performances of Leslie and Treadaway, both are excellent despite the shortcomings of Janiak and Phil Graziadei insubstantial and sometimes clumsy script.

“We’ve spent hundreds of nights together,” Paul says, yet the feeling is of two people just getting to know each other. That implication that the marriage was impulsive would give basis to Paul’s suspicions that Bea is lying to him when she begins to act erratically, but instead of developing this the film moves all too slowly before descending into a loop of repeated actions and dialogue, though Janiak still manages to build atmosphere and dread.

2014pt2_EIFF_honeymoon 2The scene where Paul wakes at the wrong time and gets out of bed, gets dressed, all without noticing it’s still pitch black outside, only to realise his mistake and go back to the bedroom to find Bea gone doesn’t ring true, but is still effective despite the contrivance. Filmed in the beautiful scenery of North Carolina and with only two people onscreen for the majority of the running time, to lose Bea is genuinely unsettling, alone, in the woods, in the dark, nor is that the only effective moment; the fishing scene, the casual cruelty of killing worms, killing fish, disturbing when first played out is later echoed horribly by the increasingly alien Bea.

While infinitely better written, acted, filmed and directed than the similarly themed From Beneath, it doesn’t actually have significantly more story. Possibly better viewed as a showcase for Leslie, Treadaway and the obvious talent of Janiak, it is possible Honeymoon will be more effective on the small screen than on cinema release, the relationship decaying as fast as it is formed likely more disturbing in the intimacy of the home.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival continues until Sunday 29th June

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