Postcards from Edinburgh

Capsules on EIFF 2013 films not reviewed elsewhere. Last updated July 2 with entries on 'We Steal Secrets', 'Il Futuro', 'Noche' and 'Leviathan'...

NB: Films reviewed in full are indexed here.

Most recently-seen listed first.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
(Alex Gibney, 2013 USA)

Gibney’s latest documentary is an aesthetically busy but narratively clear overview of the bare basics that comprise the brief history of Wikileaks and the part played by its founder Julian Assange in US soldier Bradley Manning’s unprecedently huge disclosure in 2010 of classified military files. With Manning incarcerated by a US government that presumably wants to execute him and Assange wanted by the Swedish government on possibly unrelated charges of sexual assault and under political asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Gibney has to assemble his clarifying timeline without access to his two principal witnesses: Manning is reduced to the text messages he sent to Adrian Lamo, the hacker who betrayed him to the authorities (letters scroll across screen in unnecessarily emotive fashion), and Assange is seen only in second-hand would-be documentary footage taken on the run up to the two accusations of sexual assault made against him. That’s the divisive point on which Assange’s own narrative hinges, and though Gibney clearly sides with the struggle for transparent information, the interviewees whose testimonies he includes here come to suggest that regardless of whether he’s wrongfully pursued or persecuted, Assange might be a bit of an arsehole. Which might, of course, be irrelevant.

Il Futuro
(Alicia Scherson, 2013 Italy / Chile / Germany / Spain)

Adapted from a Roberto Bolano novel, this deceptively ambitious tonal curio operates at its own pace, beginning with the basic premise of two recently-orphaned teenage siblings – Bianca (Manuela Martelli) and Tomaso (Luigi Ciardo) – who have to make their own way in life, gently spreading out into an oedipal romance disguised as a routine thriller when two of Tomaso’s gym pals move in and task Bianca with befriending and bedding a retired movie star in the hope of locating the safe in which he stores his money. Said star is Maciste (Rutger Hauer), star of Hercules and rendered blind in an accident. In his sightless presence, Bianca seeks validation and finds empowerment beyond the pressures of a scopophilic patriarchy. Scherson opts for a blend of classical cinematic styles that seems to drip the whole thing in a romance and eroticism that rarely seduces or titillates.

Noche
(Leonardo Brzezicki, 2013 Argentina)

An apparently personal piece that aspires to poetic association rather than straightforward storytelling, this finds its unfortunate summary in that episode in which one character literally masturbates on a patch of forest idyll. This is another bankrupt film on young rootless ciphers inhabiting some far-off purgatorial setting that was no doubt conducive to a film crew not wanting to be disturbed (and not wanting to say anything on!) the world beyond it (c.f. Leones; Here, Then; The Swimming Pool). It couldn’t be more self-satisfied in its abrupt sonic contrasts, while in visual terms it attempts texture with slow dissolves so that several scenes often unfold at once, but the content therein couldn’t be more vacuous. As one of its cast members says, “It doesn’t matter what you create if you have no fun.” Quite: why must these films always be so insufferably humourless?

Leviathan
(Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Véréna Paravel, 2012 UK/USA/France)

A unique, immersive account of life aboard a trawler, whose sparse crew brave the high seas with round-the-clock toil. It’s an access-all-areas doc, for which the camera seems to firstly deny a human perspective and to secondly resemble something out of an experiential horror installation that smothers and suffocates with visual bobs in and out of the ocean and with expert matching sound design. It’s also a brutal demystification of the seafood industry, showing the rough treatments that define life on its front line: chains, nets, cages and ropes, knives and hooks and so on. Its rhythms enthral, its rhymes seduce; a product of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab.

The Sea
(Stephen Brown, 2013 UK / Ireland)

John Banville adapts from his own novel a script that’s given such emotionally stiff directorial treatment from Brown that the film’s 87 minutes steadily drift into an insufferable, humourless swell. Brown employs rigid framing and Steadicam to denote present-day and remembered strands respectively, and shoots the whole thing with a saturated colour that labours the pace and tone – the film bears the burdens of its literary source ("Solitude is a thing you learn ... time is relentless"). A presumably tight budget denied the presence of background extras, and as is too often the case, the result is a world – imagined or actual – that never feels fully inhabited. As a witness to his own gruelling childhood, Ciarán Hinds is tasked with injecting life where there cannot be any, and an unintentionally hilarious scene in an otherwise empty pub sees him punched in the face and barred by the landlord – all because he switched a television set off. Hinds’ character is (of course!) a writer, and so the self-pitying solitude and torment that drag the film down from first frame to last seem unavoidable. The forced plotting, sparse enough already, is exemplified best when in Hinds’ character’s recent memories, his dying wife sparks a conversation with an egregious remember-when regarding her proposal of marriage; why wouldn’t he remember it?

Oh Boy
(Jan Ole Gerster, 2012 Germany)

Effectively old-fashioned homage to Berlin and to Woody Allen, whose humour, black-and-white cinematography and jazz score it mimics. Touches of early Godard in its jump-cuts across town, and of early Reitz in its casual, playful juggling of multiple narrative strands, at the centre of which is a likeable slacker who can’t seem to match any social or familial expectation of manhood, and whose luck has seemingly run out. There are at least two laugh-out-loud moments, and sly digs at German costume dramas and Berlin’s “off-theatre scene”, both of which are defined by a hilariously unironic self-seriousness. There are more contemplative and tender moments, too: an encounter with a pal of a pal’s lonely grandmother, and a nostalgic chat with an old drunkard whose time has run out (“we didn’t have retrospect back then”), which culminates in a beautiful montage of Berlin at dawn. A refreshing reminder that a cinema with serious concerns need not be wholly miserable.

Magic Magic
(Sebastián Silva, 2013 Chile / USA)

One of two features written and directed by Silva that premiered early in 2013, Magic Magic shows in its opening moments a formal control and even audacity that dwindles quickly into a work whose tonal dissonance seems misplaced if not unintended. With its sustained eccentricity and airs of sexual menace, the film strikes us simultaneously as willing and wanting to wrongfoot us, narratively and even thematically, but it also mistakes wacky for intriguing. Silva can’t decide whether his film is about genuine bullying or paranoia, but because scenes seem to evince both, the film appears either to be disingenuous or misjudged. As despicable Brink (Michael Cera) says, “it’s called craving attention”. The journey to all-out dread is unfunny and unpleasant.

Natan
(Paul Duane and David Cairns, 2013 Ireland / UK / USA / France)

Romanian-born Bernard Natan fought for France in World War I and, taking over operations at Pathé in 1929, contributed significantly to a vertically integrated French film industry. Amidst anti-Semitic currents and wicked rumours regarding a previous career in pornographic films, Natan had his French citizenship revoked, and he met his death in a Nazi concentration camp. Duane and Cairns’ documentary is a concise overview of the filmmaker’s career that seeks effectively and legitimately to rehabilitate his reputation, utilising expert interviews and a voiceover that speaks on Natan’s behalf to the audience. With more resources and running time, it might have contextualised the anti-Semitism to which Natan fell victim in terms of its economic imperatives – there’s no mention of communism or the threat it posed to fascism, for instance – but as a historical corrective to what has until now largely been myth, it’s enlightening stuff.

The Bling Ring
(Sofia Coppola, 2013 USA)

Coppola takes her literalist brand of storytelling to the brink. Following Somewhere – a boring film about boring folk – this unimaginative take on unimaginative people gains from a bigger cast but says just about nothing of note on its fictionalised teens or the Hollywood glitz to which they aspire. Parental incompetence is once again hinted at, but what else? Does the film have any interest in saying something beyond the Vanity Fair article on which it’s based, or do we have here a lamentable example of Greenaway’s "illustrated text"? Says one of the despicably spoilt munchkins: "I literally thought I was going to die." I didn’t, but I was bored shitless.

Upstream Color
(Shane Carruth, 2013 USA)

Do-it-all Carruth conjures an emotionally stiff riff on the texture of things: physical scrapes, sonic dips, sensory impressions and internal rhymes. A would-be romance is offset by a sort of thriller to do with bodily extraction, identity theft and a great deal of pigs. The central relationship, between two perpetually glum people who are as far as I can see welcome to one another, is defunct as soon as it takes off, in stop-start fashion, aboard a train. When Jeff (Carruth!) tells Chris (Amy Seimetz), “I like you so much,” we have to wonder why. What anyone would see in Chris is anyone’s guess, and so we’re to also take it for granted that the romance has blossomed between the scenes (sheets?), because on the evidence we’re given, no spark is present: Carruth has been too busy dipping his whole thing in hallucinatory, shallow-focused downers. Gestural and participatory in that Malickian way, it’s a film of near-touches and fleeting glances, one that finds its most fitting metonym in the recurrent motif of a box of files being tossed from a balcony. Was it Carruth’s script?

We Are the Freaks
(Justin Edgar, 2013 UK)

An unfunny and unwelcome attempt to transfer the worst trends of small-screen British comedy to its cinema screens, coming straight at us with a protagonist who talks to camera to tell us he hates everything including film characters who talk to camera. Thereafter we suffer an evening that escalates into a nightmarish night for four or five teens at the onset of university: unrequited romance, sexual mishaps, potty-mouthed autism and general disappointments await. One poor lad snaps his banjo string while fantasising over outgoing premier Maggie Thatcher; another kills his (inevitably) unappealing crush’s brother by joyriding in an empty car park, not knowing he has a heart condition; and another still has, erm, his university grant rejected. Michael Smiley’s asked to teach a few bullies some manners in a scene that aspires to the hallway fight in Oldboy, but on the whole it’s largely unpleasant and thoroughly unsophisticated stuff, its humour best summed up by a clichéd joke about Charles Bukowski that sounds like it was lifted from Wikipedia. The film is set in 1990.

The Great Hip Hop Hoax
(Jeanie Finlay, 2013 UK)

Straight outta Arbroath, rappers Gavin Baine and Billy Boyd responded to a humiliating dismissal from a talent contest audition in London, 2004, by forging Californian personas for themselves and taking a sycophantic and arbitrarily image-based music industry temporarily by storm. Finlay’s documentary might in some ways be contradicted by its own reliance on the two men who fibbed their way to fame – especially when one of them is revealed to be more invested than we were first led to believe – but it’s a fascinating and well-assembled account of an unlikely two-piece détournement that escalated from a simple idea to a life-sucking venture. Silibil & Brains (as Boyd and Baine were known) emerged at a particular point in history, where on the one hand round-the-clock video diaries were the thing but on the other social media hadn’t yet taken off. In the brief time since, the likes of Twitter and YouTube have made it impossible for two fellas from one corner of Scotland (“a nation of almosts and maybes”) to trick their way into a record deal with Sony without at least someone back home spilling all. Subsequently, it’s a decent snapshot and reminder of the Jackass culture, exemplified by a phone recording of Billy pissing into Gavin’s cupped hands in a busy Leicester Square. That a fiction so outrageous can be accepted as legitimate is a sad indictment of the commercial music industry as a whole.

Before You Know It
(P. J. Raval, 2013 USA)

Refreshingly straightforward account of three over-60 gay men living in the USA. Dennis Creamer is a widower in Florida who began to cross-dress after his long-term wife’s death, and who seeks communal solace in an LGBT retirement community in Portland, Oregon; Ty Martin is Harlem’s outreach manager for LGBT rights and support group SAGE; Robert Mainer owns a gay bar in Galverston, Texas. Varying in their degrees of openness, these three men are equally interesting as subjects, and Raval frames institutional homophobia through a depiction of their everyday lives. Originating as a campaign film, it keeps things simple and emotive in celebrating and arguing for social and legal acceptance. Like Martin in particular, the film as a whole is unassuming but quietly confident, concentrating on the small pivots that comprise larger battles. The many moments of uncomplicated joy here include Martin attending pal Osé’s wedding to Gary in the aftermath of the passing of the Marriage Equality Act, and Creamer being welcomed by the staff and occupants of Rainbow Vista, the retirement home where he finds acceptance.

A Long Way From Home
(Virginia Gilbert, 2013 UK / France)

Tonally elusive melodrama set amidst the sun-bleached locales of Nîmes, a haven for stop-and-hop tourists and ageing petty bourgeois expats alike. James Fox and Brenda Fricker play a septuagenarian couple whose chance encounter with two young holidaying lovers (Natalie Dormer and Paul Nicholls) gives Fricker cause for concern and sends Fox on a daily quest to regain his youthful swagger. Adapting from her own short story, Gilbert develops proceedings through simple repetition, racking up tensions and even ambiguities with excruciating, interpretable longueurs between shots and reaction shots. Emotions are heightened and plausibility might be hindered, particularly with regard to the younger couple’s dynamic: Dormer is a flirty minx from the off, while Nicholls is barely more than a caricature of a pretentious potty-mouthed careerist. Might intentionally reference Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago, a far superior film about Britons abroad; evocation of mood and place owes much to Steve Bond’s excellent sound design.