Diary of a Geek Week at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2010

Although the Edinburgh Film Festival had more to offer than this brief selection, commitments and finances, not to mention scheduling clashes, prevent even the most dedicated of reporters from attending every screening that sounds of interest, so I was only able to snatch a few moments of geek friendly entertainment. But what fine moments most of them were…

Friday 18th June – The People vs. George Lucas – Filmhouse

Examining the sense of betrayal universal to any fandom where we have taken ownership of the story by integrating it into the way we think, feel and play, this documentary was obviously a labour of extreme love. Director Alexandre O Philippe was on hand to answer questions after the screening, and told us that he had trawled through over 730 hours of footage to whittle it down to the two hours presented, and his producer confirmed that she now knew far more about Jar-Jar Binks than she had ever wanted to know.

Philippe charts the enormous impact of Star Wars from the seventies, when the Force was unique and singular in our lives, through the critical and commercial success of the rest of the trilogy, to the ambivalence towards the Special Editions in the nineties, when aspects of the revisions showed that the fans had grasped aspects of the characters more fundamentally than the creators.

For many, our favourite character is that rogue Han Solo, and no scene illustrates his unpredictable charm more than the Mos Eisley Canteen. When we first saw Star Wars, were we threatened by the fact that Han shot Greedo, or was that the moment when we knew we had found something fun and dangerous? By making the films more child friendly by changing it so that Greedo pulled a gun first, forcing Han to defend himself, George Lucas took away the memory of a childhood friend we adored, and telling us that as this is the definitive edition, we are the ones who are wrong. And that’s not even broaching the subject of just how badly the integrated the amended footage was, adding further injury to the insult.

And then came the prequels, and the impossible expectations we had for them. How could we be anything other than disappointed? While endlessly examined as films, and invariably dismissed as flawed and inferior, this documentary instead focuses on how the fans reacted to the prequels, sometimes taking multiple viewings to confirm their initial impression that the recent offerings, particularly The Phantom Menace, weren’t reaching them in the way they thought they would, thinking maybe they had missed something that would open the film up to them to be loved unconditionally in the same way they had two decades earlier, blaming themselves rather than George Lucas for the missing connection.

Despite the wrenching disappointment of the second trilogy, Philippe was determined to end the film on a positive note, showing that there are many younger fans who love them as much as we loved the originals, and observing that if we hadn’t invested so much of our lives in the films George gave us, then they wouldn’t have this continued hold on us now.

Painfully honest and constantly hilarious, the film could easily have been made about any branch of fandom who have taken something so unfeasibly and unquestioningly into their hearts that they absolutely refuse to let it go – and, it is safe to say, I no longer consider myself even a runner up in the contest for biggest geek on the planet.

Friday 18th June – Monsters – Filmhouse

Advertised in the programme as a road movie crossed with District Nine, this is nothing of the sort, although that facile description will no doubt be repeated often upon release. The reality is not so easy to categorise, making the film a difficult market proposition, which is a shame, as it deserves a wide audience.

More honestly, it is a well observed meditation on the growing friendship between two people forced together by extreme circumstance. The fact that they are on the run from an alien infestation in South America is almost incidental, and director Gareth Edwards stated that he hopes it can become that rarity, a science fiction film that appeals to women as much as men.

The magnificent creatures of the title are in no way monsters, rather animals from another planet, possibly intelligent, certainly horribly misunderstood, which are no trouble when left alone. Their arrival has terrified the neighbouring United States, and the former land of the free has become a walled empire, impenetrable to those on the outside.

Helpless on the wrong side of that wall, Andrew and Samantha become the refugees when their passports and tickets are stolen. As they struggle through the jungle, they consider the circumstances they have found themselves in, and what, if anything, may lie ahead.

Improvised dialogue means new ideas constantly surface – as a photo journalist in a war zone, does Andrew survive on the suffering of others? He didn’t create the market that gives more money for a photo of a dead child than a live one, yet nobody criticises a doctor who makes a living from the suffering of others, and who is Samantha, stranded tourist, daughter of a rich publishing magnate, planning her society wedding, to criticise his life anyway?

Both technically and artistically, the film is mesmerising. Shot on a variety of cameras and without any additional lighting beyond the natural illumination available, the scenery and locations are truly stunning; sunsets and cloudscapes, and shadows shifting against the night sky.

As the only two professional actors in the whole film, Monsters rests entirely on the impressively talented husband and wife team Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, both of whom were present at the screening. The rest of the film was cast entirely locally simply by asking residents to perform whatever roles were needed to fill the scene.

The digital effects, created personally by director Gareth Edwards, who previously won a BAFTA award for his work on the Horizon edition Supermassive Black Holes, are seamlessly blended into the film, not only the ubiquitous background of hardware – fighter jets screaming overhead, a fleet of military vessels blockading the harbour – but the rarely glimpsed bioluminescent creatures themselves, enormous tentacled beings that hide within the jungles and shelter in the rivers.

Already picked up for distribution in several territories following the premiere at the SXSW Festival, this film was rightly included in the Best of the Fest on the last weekend of the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Sat 19th June – Outcast – Cameo Cinema

Attended by the majority of the lead cast and crew, the premiere of this Edinburgh set film of social realism was a strange contrast, screened in the plush seating and classic architecture of the historic Cameo cinema. Concerning refugees on a council estate, the twist is that they are not running from political persecution, but a supernatural threat.

Kate Dickie delivers her trademark stunning performance as Mary, a mother who will do anything to protect a child she deeply resents, a child who does not comprehend the danger he is in, nor the danger he presents to those around him, only knowing that he is different but yearns to be normal. The tight knit community is not welcoming to them as outsiders, and social services are harsh and unsympathetic, and they are being tracked by James Nesbitt’s Cathal, a hunter whose powers may be equal to Mary’s protection charms.

The writing and directing team, brothers Colm and Tom McCarthy confirmed that if the film is successful on release, they have plans for a sequel, to be set several years later in America, though it will not be an immediate project. The McCarthys, Dickie, Nesbitt, Hanna Stanbridge, Ian Whyte and many further members of the cast and crew were in attendance, enthusiastically taking questions and signing autographs in the foyer after the screening.

Although not particularly innovative, the major selling point is the solid performances from the whole cast, and the film certainly passes the time, but would likely be better suited to television rather than cinema release.

One personal pleasure is to see Edinburgh used as a filming location in a horror film, even if for the most part of the film it is only blocks of council flats, with only the closing moments set on the High Street, outside St Giles Cathedral.

The creature effects are simple and effectively kept in shadow, but spare a thought for Whyte in full body prosthetic, covered in slime, skulking about in the undergrowth in the Edinburgh winter of 2009. And isn’t that Karen Gillan playing an early victim, shortly before landing herself a trip in the TARDIS?

Monday 21st June – Sir Patrick Stewart – Cineworld

Sold out within an hour of the box office opening, this early evening interview with of one of Britain’s most admired and successful actors was the keynote event of the Festival. Accompanied by clips from the first X-Men, I, Claudius and the recent BBC production of Hamlet, Sir Patrick was relaxed and obviously enjoying himself at the Festival – where he was serving on the judging panel – as he spoke of his love of cinema and his enthusiasm for the films he had seen.

Having been encouraged to take up acting by an English teacher, he told how early opportunities had led to his love of working with ensemble casts, first in what became the BBC’s repertory company in the early seventies, then to the Royal Shakespeare Company, and finally leading both the crew of the Enterprise and the X Men.

Reminiscing on the many great actors he has worked with, he spoke of Sir Alec Guinness, even though his character had no dialogue in the scene (“The privilege, just to be in the same room as him for a day!”) Rod Steiger (“I learned that day that being an actor meant you had to be there for your acting partner, constantly”) and of meeting Karl Malden at a dinner party (“I said to the host I didn’t care what seating arrangements she had made, I absolutely had to be beside him,”) and also how Wild Geese II funded the replacement of a leaking bay window, his only positive memory of the experience.

Speaking on Star Trek, accompanied by a clip from First Contact, he spoke of the great support Rick Berman had given him through his many years on the Enterprise, never failing to take his call (or returning it immediately if he happened to call during family dinners), talking for hours discussing character and direction, ensuring that Patrick was fully engaged in the show, and how it was Berman who allowed the later seasons to move in a more political direction that had been strongly resisted by Gene Roddenberry.

Wednesday 23rd June – H P Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror – Filmhouse

Advertised as a special festival event, expectations were high, but the ambitious project but did not fully deliver the promised devastating horror. The Filmhouse sound system unfortunately meant that one of the main selling points of the “audio only horror movie,” the full surround sound mix, was experienced only by those in the centre of the auditorium, and those of us in the back row did not get the full benefit, a fact confirmed when I spoke to director Colin Edward in the foyer afterwards, who told us that it should have sounded much better from where he sat as well.

Unfortunately, while Festival artistic director Hannah McGill’s comment that “everyone will leave here picturing something different” was both true and appropriate for Lovecraft’s elusive work, the doubling up of some of the performers was so obvious that the end result sounded as though it had been cast less from the Miskatonic University Dramatic Society and more from the Scooby-Doo School of Performing Arts and Silly Voices.

The choice of text was also perhaps an error, for while much of Lovecraft’s work is introspective, relying on isolation and fear of the unknown and the unknowable, careful use of sparse sound would have allowed the audience to fill in the frightful spaces of the mind more effectively than a slim budgeted monster flick could showcase. The Dunwich Horror is a narrative tale, with a dramatic gun-packing showdown on a stormy hilltop at the conclusion, which does not translate well to the audio only format.

Hopefully the company’s next proposed project, The Rats in the Walls, will be a more suitable vehicle for eerie unease to seep through the speakers, as the original prose version of the story was told in sound.

Having many years ago experienced a magnificent physical theatre production of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward performed on Chambers Street during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I am witness to the fact that Lovecraft can be staged powerfully and effectively on a protean budget, and that technical limitations are sometimes a spur to greater creativity.

I should also mention that several standout films from previous years, none of which received wide British release, are now available on imported Region One DVD, all of which I would recommend over any of the recent cinema release blockbusters fighting for screen room –

Sleep Dealer – (dir. Alex Rivera) – amidst ongoing disputes over resources, virtual reality interfaces allow high tech exploitation of Mexican workers who can no longer travel across the fortified border in this US/Mexican co-production;

Dreams With Sharp Teeth – (dir. Erik Nelson) – an extended interview with indomitable and acerbic writer Harlan Ellison, covering his life, loves and career, and the many axes he has to grind, with contributions and adulation from Neil Gaiman, Ronald D Moore and Robin Williams among many others;

Shiver (Eskalofrío) – (dir. Isidro Ortiz) – a mother moves her son to a shadowy mountains in northern Spain so he can escape the sun that exacerbates his illness, but as outsiders they fall under suspicion when a string of bloody murders takes place in the community.

Fortunately, last year’s big premiere, a little film called Moon, did manage to gather some attention when it snuck into cinemas towards the end of the summer…

Please click the links for our coverage of the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2011 and 2012



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