The Festival was over, and the boys were all planning for the Fall...
Due to circumstances outside of my control my intended 12 movies this year was reduced to 10, meaning that I saw less of this year's Festival than any Edinburgh Film Festival in years. So you are welcome to take my conviction that it wasn't a great year with a pinch of salt; I am not in a position to say it with any authority. And still, I suspect I am correct; there was a time when almost every public screening at the Festival would be sold-out, while this year 2-for-1 and free tickets seemed to be offered on a daily basis to get bums on seats. There were empty seats, once again, for the closing night film (Not Another Happy Ending and, judging by the film, there may have been more empty seats at the end than the beginning). The Award winners were announced: The Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature went to Leviathan, about which I heard a lot of positive feedback. The documentary Fire In The Night won the Audience Award (which has been on 'a hiatus' for two years; in other words, 'why did we get rid of that again?'). Through the less-than-spectacular last few years of the Fest the documentary strand has been the one reliable factor. The Surprise Movie is also back; this year it was Richard Curtis's "About Time," a time-travelling rom-com, which predictably split opinion. It shouldn't, then, be a surprise that the last lot of films I have to discuss is a mixed bag, with only a documentary standing out. "Desert Runners" is a doc following the insanely ambitious pursuits of a group of ultramarathon runners. They are trying to complete a 'Grand Slam' which by their terms means running about 150 miles across a desert in six days. And then doing it again. Three times. Four deserts in one year. These people are mad. What got me about the film, though, was despite just how mad they are, the film explores their motivations and by the end we really care about them. We do not care, and neither does the film, who wins; they don't actually seem like a competitive bunch. They are challenging themselves, not each other. And it is quite a challenge; some of these people have only relatively recently taken up running. They are not professional athletes, and yet they are moved to run across the Atacama, the Gobi Desert, the Sahara, and then Antartica. They run in temperatures ranging from -20 C to 50 C. One stretch of the Gobi, the final one, is 99 km. That's sixty-two miles. 62. In one day. They each have personal reasons for running. Ricky, an American ex-professional baseball player, is dissatisfied and looking for something to give him a sense of purpose. Samantha, an Australian, wants to be the first woman to complete the Grand Slam. Dave, from Ireland, is 56 and thinks he will only be old when he feels old. In the most moving section we follow Tremaine, a British ex-Service Man who has recently lost his wife to cancer; taking on this challenge is a part of his grieving process. While we in the audience may want them to achieve their goal, I found myself far more worried about their physical wellbeing than their position on the run. We only follow a small group of the runners; each race involves dozens. After one of the stretches an ambulance has to be sent back to pick up a runner who has fallen behind. Later news comes to the runners that he has passed away. A certain realisation is seen on their faces: push myself too far, it seems to say, and I could be next. Ultimately this is a film not about racing, but about endurance and the human spirit that says, yes, I could do that - even if many others may scratch their heads and think: yes, you can - but no, you shouldn't.
"The Sea" stars Ciarán Hinds as a writer who returns to the place he spent his childhood Summers. His wife has died, and, searching for some kind of solace, he finds himself drawn into his past. As a child one year he escaped from his family's shanty to mingle with a better-off family, and a good proportion of the film is given to these rose-tinted flashbacks. An early scene suggests that some tragedy may have been involved. He spends his time in the house the rich family used to own, now a guesthouse, with landlady Charlotte Rampling and resident Karl Johnson, reminiscing and drinking, if not always in that order. The Sea is the type of British drama I feel like I've seen a dozen times at this very Festival. There's nothing terrible about it, and nothing particularly memorable either. It desperately wants to be poignant and philosophical, qualities that I can quite believe were held by John Banville's book (which won the 2005 Booker Prize). But the films feels like a forgettable TV movie that somehow, despite its good intentions, misses its target. There is a strong supporting cast with Rufus Sewell and Natasha McElhone as the wealthier kids' parents. But there are already far better films and TV series about memory (Once Upon a Time in America; The Singing Detective) and the child's eye view of the adult world (I'm Not Scared, the Italian film, comes to mind). Banville adapts the script from his own book, suggesting his strength lies in novel writing, while Stephen Brown directs what it is his first feature. Brown may have a future as a director, when he gets better scripts.
There is an underlying problem with "uwantme2killhim" (besides its title) that the film never overcomes. The story is a true one, so either you know that story and therefore you know exactly where the film is going, or you don't already know the story - and still know exactly where the film is going. It concerns two teenage boys, one reasonably popular at school and one a social outcast, who become friends after Mark, the more popular one, befriends John's sister online. She is, she says, in the witness protection programme and wants Mark to take care of John and protect him from bullies. We know that John will end up stabbing Mark, as this is what the film opens with, and the film tries to distract us with this information so as we don't see the real picture, but, well, even from this description you can probably work out where it's going. The film does manage to overcome some of the obvious problems with the material, such as working out how to make internet chats visual, which I think he just about achieves. But it's hard not to feel it's undermined by the film's determination that there is a degree of mystery here; take out the supposed surprises and tell the story from the other kid's point of view and it might have worked. The film is a curious case, because it's one of those stories that you just couldn't make up; it stretches credulity too much. From what I've read the real story may have stretched it even more. One problem is that the characters are supposed to be 16, but the actors are both in their early 20s. There is a level of gullibility that I just couldn't buy from the central character that I might have believed if he had actually looked young enough for the part. That isn't to take anything away from the central performances: Jamie Blackley as Mark and Toby Regbo as John indicate real talent and potential. The director is Andrew Douglas, best known for the remake of "The Amityville Horror." Which was also, as you may recall, 'based on a true story.' At least this one actually is. ***** So not, I think, a vintage Film Festival, although as I have already indicated I'm probably not in a position to say. An article on the Festival's website alerts me that admissions were up 10% over last year. Notice the language: 'admissions,' not 'ticket sales.' I wonder if this includes all the free tickets and last-minute offers. I don't blame anyone in particular for this situation, but the Festival has taken a series of real blows this last decade. First it moved from August and Edinburgh Festival-time proper to June, meaning it was too soon after Cannes to get many real headliner movies. Since then it has had a huge cut to its budget, which is now a fraction of what it once was. To compound matters two years ago the Festival attempted an ill-advised makeover, wherein it tossed out the red carpets, ditched the most-used venue (a multiplex) and dropped the Jury, the prizes, the audience award, the Surprise Movie - and most of the audience went with them. They are still trying to regain people from that spectacularly misjudged move, and I think Artistic Director Chris Fujiwara is trying his damnedest. But no matter how you dress it up, people remember a film festival for the quality of films on offer. The last three years I've seen dozens of films at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and I could probably count on one hand the ones that were really worth getting excited about.