EIFF 2009 Day 1

This is the first of four posts about the films and sights I saw whilst at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival. It's not as blanket coverage as I had hoped, thanks to one thing and another, but I hope you will enjoy reading about what I did see.

Starting off from a sunny Yorkshire, I started the drive up to Edinburgh with a half hour to spare according to Google maps. Of course, anyone who has planned their journeys according to this valuable resource will realise that their times are often open to a certain amount of optimism, such as being able to travel at the speed limit at all times of the journey with no cars getting in the way, or assuming you'll Dukes of Hazzard it over the roundabouts.

Consequently my arrival was hurried. I managed, at the third attempt, to secure a single room at the Thrums hotel a month before, which although perfectly nice and all, was a half-hours walk away from the nearest film location (EIFF films are spread mostly between the Filmhouse, Cineworld and Cameo theatres, all three of which on the west side of town, the hotel on the southeast side). I got to the hotel with 10 minutes to spare, so I had no chance. Fortunately, the owner sorted out a taxi for me as I lugged my things into my little room, and what followed was a tense and bumpy ride through the roadwork-packed streets to the first destination. I arrived 5 minutes into the first film, which given the situation wasn't the worst outcome. However, having spent a lot of the ride talking to the driver and checking my film times, I neglected to keep a mental note of the roads he used..

Terribly Happy
[Frygtelig Lykkelig] (Denmark) (IMDB)
Robert arrives in a remote rural town, posted in as the new policeman as punishment from his seniors for a transgression. Wound up tightly, and missing his Copenhagen family, he unsurprisingly has problems fitting into the expectations of the locals, who constantly talk down to him in favour of his locally-sourced predecessor. During this hard time adjusting, several mysterious situations show up, not least the increasing affections of Ingelise, a quietly terrified woman married to Jørgen - a perpetually drunk, violent man who beats her and is both feared and respected by the rest of the town. Then there's the unpalatable punishments for minor offences he is expected to deal out, the local doctor who keeps his cards close to his chest, and the mysterious vehicle poking out of the nearby marshes.
Robert becomes increasingly entwined, and this creates mounting tension for the viewer as secret connections are revealed and Robert relents his flailing control of the situation, getting deeper and deeper into places he should not be. It cranks the thriller aspect of this film up from its relatively benign beginnings to edge of seat proportions to the end, much like the Coen Brothers have managed to do so well in the past. You are left guessing right to the end whether he can get to the end of the film and in what state. The film is quite understandably hoovering up awards left right and centre. 8/10

The Crimson Wing
(US/UK) (trailer/site)
This film is produced by Disney, reviving their Nature filmmaking arm for the first time in 60 years. The title comes from the Latin name for the Lesser Flamingo, and follows the huge flocks of birds through Africa to their mating colonies at Lake Natron, an area in Tanzania containing flat salt lakes and a massive volcano, spewing ashes full of Sulphur Dioxide forth that become the base element in the ecosystem of the area. With narration by Marialla Frostrup, we see the mating rituals, births of a half million new chicks and the important relationship formed between parents and child, and as the chick grows and becomes more mobile, the threats of the predator-rich environment and the rich salt lakes that both serve as a protector and a killer. Things continue as the flock of chicks take the danger-packed journey through the salt-lakes to the freshwater several days away, with only a handful of guardian adult birds to protect them and show the way.
As with many documentaries, The Crimson Wing shows both the beauty and the harshness of the natural world. The high-res imagery throughout the film of the beautiful environments are stunning to see - there is little to compare with the site of a flock of flamingoes gliding over the mirror-clear lakes, their wing-beats not quite touching the surface, and then landing gracefully on tip-toes, barely disturbing the waters' smoothness. Be prepared also to see its brutality, which I was surprised to see for a Disney film had been hardly messed with, although it did grate that they tried to tell the story from the point of view of a single chick that looked as if it wasn't going to make it, and then did.
The British co-producers and screenwriter were present at this UK premier screening, and were on hand to do a Q-and-A at the end of the film, which was a nice addition and helped to get a bit of background to the six-year project as they talked about long hot days in stinky hides and using hovercraft to travel across the salt marshes to the huge flocks early in the morning so as to avoid disturbing them as much as possible.
The renewal-rebirth themes of the film are well portrayed, and thankfully the whip-pan and crazy camera work present in some modern documentaries were absent here, leaving only a serene look into a strange and beautiful world, although the use of orchestrated music throughout did grate a little in places where there should have been silence. (indeed, one of the audience gave the producers a good telling off about it!)
If you enjoyed March of the Penguins, then this is definitely worthy of a look. I would rate it slightly better, as it felt a little bit less messed about with by the money men, a feat even more surprising given its Disney label. 7.5/10

The Maiden Heist
(US) (wiki)
As a gentle send-up to heist films, this was an absolute cracker. Cristopher Walken in his most aged role yet, plays Roger, a security guard at an art museum, infatuated with the piercing stare and mystique of the woman in 'The Lonely Maiden' - a painting hanging in one of the galleries. Morgan Freeman plays Charles, a guard on security camera duty, also enamoured with his own favourite piece; the less charming 'Girl with Cats', to which he devotes a significant proportion of his time attempting to recreate for himself. To complete the trio that must always be present in this sort of film, William H. Macy does a fantastic turn as a night watchman with an - ahem - more than artistic appreciation for the 'Bronze Warrior' a statue celebrating the male form.
One day the unthinkable happens. The old curator is replaced by some young idiot who wants to modernise the exhibits completely, and that means all the old stuff has to go - to Denmark. Deciding Denmark is perhaps too far to be commuting from America, the three hatch a plot to steal their three favourites and replace them with forgeries, keeping the real one for themselves. So begins a wonderful pastiche of the slick, well-organised perfect crime capers, with the whole 'will they wont they pull it off' question keeping you engaged through the whole thing. All three main roles are perfectly cast, and carry the film almost completely, with a worthwhile mention of Marcia Gay Harden who plays Roger's increasingly involved and impatient wife, threatening to send the outcome one way or another each time she opens her mouth. Overall, brilliant. And unusually for such a film, I can't remember even one swear word in it, so you can take granny along as well. 8.5/10

Walking alone through dark unknown streets trying to the best of your knowledge to recall some landmarks that you saw during the daytime is not to be recommended, although once I'd found The Meadows, a large park on the south side, it was reasonably straightforward from there. Hopefully tomorrow should be a lot more relaxed.

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