Edinburgh film festival: Not quite a worldbeater

Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final film, A Most Wanted Man with Willem Dafoe

Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final film, A Most Wanted Man with Willem Dafoe

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The Edinburgh International Film Festival attracted big names, but globally relevant movies were in shorter supply, writes Alistair Harkness

Having drawn to a close last night, one of the most notable things about the 68th edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival was its ability to attract more high profile guests than has been the case in recent years. True, Gérard Depardieu was a last minute no-show for the second screening of Abel Ferrara’s hyped-but-hollow Welcome to New York, but elsewhere, the festival made a good show of bringing in actors and directors with big cult followings. Elijah Wood (Set Fire to the Stars), horror maverick Eli Roth (The Green Inferno), Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza (Life After Beth) and Don Johnson (Cold in July) were all in town to support their latest films, with the last of these proving one of the undoubted highlights of the festival’s first weekend. Johnson certainly lived up to the billing of the inaugural Hero Hangout strand, taking to the stage of the Lyceum Theatre for a witty and loquacious 90-minute interview in which he regaled the not-quite capacity crowd with juicy stories about his iconic role in Miami Vice, his numerous celebrity encounters and his surprisingly diverse career.

There was poignancy over the festival’s first weekend too, though, with the UK premiere of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final film A Most Wanted Man. Cast as a German spy in post-9/11 Hamburg, his astonishing performance in Anton Corbijn’s terse John Le Carré adaptation was a further reminder of what the film world has lost with his premature passing. In retrospect A Most Wanted Man would perhaps have made a better closing night film than the rather mirthless romcom We’ll Never Have Paris, a choice that couldn’t help but seem like a sop to those who felt that the brutal Brit cop drama Hyena was too divisive. But better a divisive film than a tepid one. For me, Hyena did a good job of putting a distinctively British spin on a genre more closely associated with American cinema, with writer/director Gerard Johnson using its gangster milieu to comment on the savagery of the free market and the changing face of British society in much the same way that Hyena’s veteran producer Stephen Woolley did with Mona Lisa back in the 1980s.

There was plenty of good stuff on offer in the rest of the programme too. I loved the way Gia Coppola’s sensuous coming-of-age drama Palo Alto presented adolescence as a half-remembered dream, giving its otherwise plotless action real purpose and truthfulness. Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins also put an interesting spin on post-high school ennui with its funny/sad tale of a pair of estranged thirty-something siblings coming to terms with the realisation that their tormented school years may also have been their best. Comic stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader each revealed hitherto untapped dramatic depths in a film that treated some difficult themes with sensitivity and grace.

There were some intriguing genre experiments too. Australian effort The Infinite Man used a brain-bending time-travel plot device to good effect to explore the danger of trying too hard to craft the perfect relationship, while the darkly funny Norwegian thriller In Order of Disappearance – which went down a storm with audiences – sent up the seriousness of Nordic Noir with an enjoyably gruesome revenge plot. Then there was South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s long-awaited English-language debut Snowpiercer, which turned out to be an inventively off-kilter slice of pulpy mainstream filmmaking, one that transcended its admittedly derivative dystopian sci-fi set up with a propulsive story, stunning visuals and a rogues gallery of outré characters, including Tilda Swinton as a ruthless, order-obsessed bureaucrat whose baffling accent, dental work and eyewear stole the show

Elsewhere, though, the festival sometimes felt a little insular, more interested in showcasing the sort of movies that seem to exist only to play at these kinds of events. This year’s Michael Powell award-winner was a case in point. Revolving around a group of insufferable characters retreating to a country house in order to conduct an experiment in communal living, Joanna Coates’s Hide and Seek played like a series of dull drama school workshops, with its four main protagonists (Josh O’Connor, Hannah Arterton, Rea Mole and Daniel Metz) literally putting on shows for one another in between jumping into the sack for graphic – though hardly transgressive – sexual encounters.

To its credit, it was at least made with a degree of artistry not forthcoming in another of the Michael Powell contenders, the embarrassingly amateurish Scottish effort A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide. This irreverent, supposedly black comedy about a suicidal man’s determination to kill himself was badly written, badly acted and shouldn’t have been in contention for the festival’s most prestigious award. Alas, its ineptitude was matched by another Scottish production, Let Us Prey, a tedious horror effort starring Pollyanna McIntosh as a WPC whose first night on the job in a small Scottish town coincides with the arrival of a mysterious stranger intent on holding its inhabitants to account for their respective sins. Full of terrible dialogue, rubbish characters and gory but inert action, it was also one of two not-very-good films in the line-up (the other being The Anomaly) to feature the festival’s senior programmer Niall Greig Fulton in a prominent acting role. That’s perhaps one way to guarantee EIFF selection, but it also smacked a little of cronyism – something that artistic director Chris Fujiwara should perhaps think about stamping out in the future given the good work he’s done in the last couple of years to rehabilitate the festival’s reputation following its disastrous 2011 showing.

That was the year, of course, in which then-artistic director James Mulligan passed up the opportunity to screen Anthony Baxter’s magnificent Donald Trump documentary You’ve Been Trumped, so it was good to see this year’s festival make amends by showcasing Baxter’s impassioned sequel, A Dangerous Game – not least because it did an excellent job of expanding the investigation of the first film to show how a story that began in Scotland has had real relevance around the world.

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