Diary of a Geek Week at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2015

EIFFlogoUnder the guidance of new artistic director Mark Adams, the 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival is upon us, which this year will host eight international feature premieres, sixteen European feature premieres and an astonishing twenty four world feature premieres. Amongst the science fiction, fantasy and horror features there are Therapy for a Vampire, NarcopolisMaggie, Brand New-U, The Messenger, Infini, The Sisterhood of Night, Dead Rising: Watchtower and The Houses October Built, and here we round up some of the other featured titles.

Uncanny – Thursday 18th June – Odeon

Uncanny1With its UK premiere a bare five months after the arrival of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, it is apparent that even when developed entirely independently there are parallel lines in technological evolution which will arrive at similar results when searching for the optimal solution to a problem, though of course with crucial differences in the individual expression of traits.

Where Ex Machina had a male software engineer invited to assess the Turing compliance of an obviously technological construct which displayed superficial female appearance, here journalist Joy Andrews (True Blood and Constantine‘s Lucy Griffiths) is writing an article on the work of former child prodigy David Kressen (13 Sins‘ Mark Webber) who graduated with a master’s degree ten years previously at age nineteen and was given “a blank cheque to explore whatever work I want” by Kestrel Computing.

Uncanny2Having shown her his artificial skin and bone projects (“aerated aluminium to match bone density”), David asks her to spend a few minutes with Adam (David Clayton Rogers), his handsome but socially awkward associate. Confused when David also gives Kressen as his surname, Joy is direct with David, asking if Adam is his “Asperger’s cousin who’s about to go all Good Will Hunting on the world.”

No, he explains, Adam is the subject upon which she will write her article, an artificial intelligence housed in an android body so advanced Joy didn’t even realise what she was talking to wasn’t human, but where Garland’s Ava was a prototype kept in secret seclusion, David wants Adam to be seen. “You weren’t made to be locked up forever. I want to share you with the world.”

Uncanny4Despite his spoken generosity, David’s confidence is a hair’s breadth from a supremely ugly arrogance. Making The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper seem socially well-adjusted, Webber’s performance is a far cry from the warm beardy slacker who once played guitar alongside Scott Pilgrim.

Like the chess game David uses to teach Adam analytical thought and future reasoning, once the pieces are in motion the rules of the game make certain outcomes predictable, even inevitable. A fast learner, it is no surprise that Adam soon learns about secrets, jealousy and lying, because that is what they are teaching him.

Uncanny3Yet Joy seems to be the one who cannot see this; aware that Adam is in effect a curious child learning about the world and humanity, rather than behaving patiently and with understanding she reacts with anger at his perceived inappropriate male behaviour when all he is doing is mimicking behaviour and seeking approval. With few adjustments, Shahin Chandrasoma’s script could have arrived at the same outcomes without the need for falsely manipulated female outrage which undermines the believability of Joy as qualified tech researcher in her own right.

For all its high aspirations, David saying he wishes to be seen as an artist “more like Van Gogh than Henry Ford,” Uncanny falls into the same valley as Ex Machina, a three hander in an enclosed space where Chandrasoma’s undeniable copius knowledge of his subject too often flows directly out of his character’s mouths in a game of technobabble one-upmanship rather than providing a background upon which the story is painted.

Hellions – Friday 19th June – Filmhouse

Beauty, Power and GraceWith his acclaimed alt zombie horror Pontypool having been screened at the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival, expectations were high for the new film from Bruce McDonald, though unfortunately this year the Canadian director was not present to introduce his film.

Sat in a pumpkin patch which would make Linus Van Pelt weep with joy, Dora Vogel (Dark Matter’s Chloe Rose) and her boyfriend Jace (Luke Bilyk) smoke cigarettes and tease each other; Hallowe’en is almost upon them, and despite the strident signage outside the local church (HAPPY HELLOWEEN! TONIGHT THE DEVIL IS AT PLAY!) most of the town seem determined to enjoy the evening.

Hellions2Dora’s participation is derailed, however, following a visit to her doctor’s surgery where her costumed physician Doctor Henry (Rossif Sutherland) informs her that she is four weeks pregnant. Retreating to her room, she is left alone in the house as her mother takes her younger brother trick or treating, but the knock on the door is not the expected arrival of Jace, it is a small child wearing rough sacking as a mask.

Not in the mood to interact, Dora hands over the candy, but the silent child returns with a friend wearing a battered bucket; this time as Dora fills their goody bags she sees that Jace’s decapitated head lies inside. She screams, she runs inside and locks the door, she calls for help as a strange storm hits the house, lighting up the night.

Hellions5Stylised and surreal, Hellions is a marked contrast to the realism of Pontypool, but where that claustrophobic thriller was largely confined to the single location of the besieged radio station, Dora is soon driven out of her home by her masked assailants into a wilderness where she encounters police officer Mike Corman (Robert Patrick, no stranger to the supernatural following two years assigned to The X-Files), fortunately armed and ready to assist.

While different from the usual horror fare of found footage and torture porn, it’s not as smart and unique as Pontypool where the approach to horror was intellectual, the method of infection linguistic, but Hellions is a very different beast, a film to be experienced rather than analysed, the meaning, even the events, open to the interpretation of the viewer.

Hellions4A series of nightmare images washed in the amazing lighting textures of hell, it’s not frightening but there are genuine moments of creepiness, a sense of the film being genuinely out of control as logic is washed away; almost drowning in a flood of her own blood, do the stains on Dora’s dress come and go because of a lapse in continuity or is there a hidden significance, the time out of joint?

Yet one particular dream of long ago repeats: with not too great a stretch Dora Vogel stands in for Dorothy Gale, the three prime antagonists being Baghead, Buckethead and Lionhead, or as they are more commonly known the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, this tornado has not taken her over the rainbow but transported her under a Hallowe’en blood moon, not to Oz but to a nightmare where teenage moms are tortured by the souls of the unwanted babies they should never have had.

The Hallow – Saturday 20th June – Filmhouse

Hallow1Across the water they come, their whole lives piled atop their car, Adam Hitchens (Ripper Street‘s Joseph Mawle), his wife Clare (Drag Me to Hell‘s Bojana Novakovic), their infant son Finn and their laid back dog Iggy. Leaving behind the bustle of London their new home will be an isolated millhouse deep in the forests of Ireland where Adam will assess the suitability of the trees prior to a major logging operation.

The locals are already unwelcoming to the new arrivals, neighbour Colm Donnelly (Game of Thrones‘ Michael McElhatton) almost hostile in his demands that Adam stay out of the woods, and his conviction that they are trespassing on land they have no business being in and where they will be unsafe, yet Adam has already discovered that for himself in a more real sense than the superstitious beliefs of Donnelly.

Hallow5Taken off track by Iggy’s curious nose, in a derelict house in the deep forests Adam has found the rotting carcass of cow from which he takes samples he later identifies as the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, normally only found in the tropics where it targets insects as hosts to spread its spores. When the window in Finn’s room is smashed Adam calls the Garda (A Field in England‘s Michael Smiley, regrettably only present for a one scene cameo) who explains that it is believed that the forest belongs to the Hallow, the fairies and banshees who were defeated in the realm of man and retreated to the trees.

With glimpses of shapes in the shadows which cannot be captured by Adam’s camera, a minimal soundtrack of rumbles and trembling strings supporting scenes of sparse dialogue and tortured glances, The Hallow is certainly competent and beautifully filmed by former music video director Corin Hardy who also draws excellent performances from his cast, but it is his script co-written with Felipe Marino which lets them down. With nothing new to bring to the crowded horror market and every jump scare telegraphed, Mawle and Novakovic are asked to do little other than react to events around them, Clare in particular serving almost no purpose for the first hour of the film other to be left in charge of the baby and look increasingly concerned.

Hallow6Presumably a microbiologist though it is never stated, having located what he believes to be a cordyceps colony across the world from its normal habitat which has jumped the species barrier, Adam’s indifference when his wife tells him she has found black goo dripping from the beams above Finn’s crib is incomprehensible; when alarm bells ring for the audience but not the trained scientist, credulity is strained. With the cordyceps an invasive organism in the body of those it infects, so too are Adam and Clare intruders, both in their immigrant status and in the realm of the forest, yet the parallels are not explored, the film instead opting for repetitive scenes of Clare staring into space or the too familiar sight of characters stumbling through the trees in darkness.

Neither do the twin threats of the Hallow and the cordyceps seem to link together coherently; has Adam miscategorised it? Is it indeed some fabulous form of fairy fungi? Certainly it seems to act in a directed manner, clogging up machinery in the way of the melding plague of Alastair Reynolds‘ Revelation Space novels, but having featured as the driving force of both the videogame Last of Us and M R Carey’s novel The Girl With All The Gifts, currently filming as She Who Brings Gifts under the direction of Outcast‘s Colm McCarthy, the inclusion here feels like over-egging the pudding, adding an extra twist to the script to make it topical where more fundamental development of the characters and primary story would have been more productive.

Hallow7The influences are diverse but always obvious, from the Close Encounters of the Third Kind lighting when the people of the forest attempt to abduct Finn to a trio of reopened X-Files, Darkness Falls (a petrol driven generator runs low as the lights flicker, holding on for dawn, the logging industry parallels made clear in the end credit sequence), Firewalker (a fungus affects human behaviour, erupting in fibrous tentacles) and Piper Maru (the first appearance of Purity as oily black stains in the eyes of the infected), while Clare illuminating the darkness in camera flashes had more menace in Julia’s Eyes.

Aiming for charm, character and laughs The Hallow could have made a stab at the same ground as Gremlins; played seriously it’s superior to Hobgoblins but features a similar number of scenes of parking cars. Only in the final scenes in the dark heart of the forest does it find its own unique voice, a dark twisted fairytale with roots in the history of the land, but the rally comes too late, the potential for a unique Celtic flavoured horror lost in the woods and a soulless changeling left in its place.

Turbo Kid – Sunday 21st June – Filmhouse

TurboKid1Too many cooks spoil the broth, and a feature film can be a delicate dish which requires a skilled hand. In recent years, there has been a rise in successful directing partnerships such as the Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers, Predestination), but written and directed by Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell, with three pairs of hands at the helm it might be expected that Turbo Kid would have too many ideas pulling in different directions, but rather the opposite is true.

The premise is a standard science fiction wasteland of deserts ravaged by acid rain, the few survivors living in shanty towns and bartering for their needs, always fearful of raiding parties, the most precious commodity the rarest, pure uncontaminated water.

TurboKid2In this wasteland lives the Kid, an orphan of the water wars who trades salvaged trinkets for murky water who accidentally intrudes on the personal bubble of Frederic the Arm Wrestler whose brother has been taken hostage by the water lord Zeus. Usually content reading his Turbo Rider comics and dreaming of superheroes, what seems to be of peripheral concern to the Kid becomes more important when his friend Apple is also captured by Zeus.

In such a derivative setting, it is the twist and the execution upon which Turbo Kid depends, and the twist is that the “future” landscape is in fact 1997 as captured through the camera of an eighties science fiction action film, the hero’s gadgets displaying chunky LED graphics, the marauding bandits riding BMX bikes, the villainous Zeus played by Michael Ironside, star of Scanners, Total Recall and Starship Troopers.

TurboKid3The execution is where the chain comes off the gears. Despite Hobo With a Shotgun‘s Jason Eisener as an executive producer and the no-doubt good intentions of all, the tyres are flat from the outset, the production lacking energy and daring, a strictly pedestrian expedition devoid of vital zing.

While Degrassi‘s Munro Chambers’ Kid has (post) teen idol charm, Being Human‘s Laurence Leboeuf perky performance as Apple borders on creepy stalker, though the reason for her voracious fixation on the Kid is later explained, but Aaron Jeffery’s Frederic never becomes more than a placeholder character, though it doubtless offered him a change of pace from Neighbours.

TurboKid4With a bleakness permeating the production when it should be filled with colour and excitement, only two images stand out as demonstrating an awareness of the genre being mimicked, the flashback to the death of the Kid’s parents, modelled on the opening scene of Conan the Barbarian, and the acid rain clouds created using Industrial Light and Magic’s time honoured super-saturated salt solution method, still as mesmerising as when seen decades ago in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Playing like a kid’s movie with added swearing, dismemberments, disembowelling and decapitations akin to the work Peter Jackson genuinely created in the era, the copious violence is the only aspect of the film which shows imagination, but Wyrmwood did gore outrageously better and The Editor did period pastiche better.

Liza, the Fox-Fairy (Liza, a rókatündér) – Thursday 25th June – Odeon

For twelve years, Liza hLiza1as worked as maid and companion to Márta Tanaka, widow of the Japanese ambassador. Through her days she has two constants to see her through, her cheap Japanese romance novels which tell her that her true love will one day come, and the ghost of J-pop icon Tomy Tani, who for six years has serenaded her with vintage as she feather dusts the ventilator.

But what does genial and dapper former hitmaker Tomy Tani (David Sakurai) do when he is unseen by Liza? He spreads chaos and death, specifically targeting any man he suspects may begin to develop affection towards Liza, eliminating them before she can reciprocate. Soon enough, bodies are piling high around her as fast as in Monty Python’s Flying Circus‘ Agatha Christie sketch, leading her to believe that she is a fox-fairy, cursed in love.

Liza2A whimsical but insubstantial confection from director Károly Ujj Mészáros in his feature debut, from a script co-written with Bálint Hegedûs, Mónika Balsai’s patiently suffering Liza is charming and Szabolcs Bede Fazekas’ newly transferred and only marginally competent police officer Sergeant Zoltán zászlós who becomes her lodger brings a bumbling earnestness to his accident prone attempts to undertake odd jobs around the run-down flat.

Caught in an ageless retro-timewarp of candyfloss frivolity an obvious touchstone referenced in the festival programme is Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s timeless Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, better known to international audiences simply as Amélie, but Liza’s miming to music only she can hear reminds of a similar scene in François Ozon’s 8 femmes (8 Women) where Ludivine Sagnier bursts into a rendition of Papa t’es plus dans le coup, while the aging tenement building of odd neighbours reminds of Pedro Almodóvar’s ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!! (What Have I Done to Deserve This?).

Liza3Most unexpected is a stylish and bold dream sequence where Liza imagines herself in ancient Nasu, a densely forested area now part of modern Japan’s Tochigi Prefecture, where she envisions her true form and the consequences of her curse, possibly the best scene in the film and a startling contrast to what is around it.

Like the dishes Liza is pressured by to cook for the widower Károly following the death of Márta, his favourite dishes of pork with chocolate, melon soup with dill and mushroom stew with jam, the ingredients of the film should perhaps not work together, but on the whole they do even if it does not hold the attention for the full hundred minute running time.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival continues until Sunday 28th June

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