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Edinburgh International Film Festival '10: Notes From the Underground

Edinburgh International Film Festival

Since the Edinburgh International Film Festival's move from August to June, the films and guests available in the early summer slot have fallen nicely for the headline writers, culminating in last year's double whammy of "Antichrist" and "The Hurt Locker." This year fate was less kind, and the absence of true talking points only emphasized that most of the higher profile films were days away from wide release — though some ("Get Low," "Winter's Bone") were excellent. There was more action down in the festival's low-budget laboratories; but there, the trend to instantly dismiss exactly the kind of films that resist instant dismissal was in full effect. With odd vibes at the top and bottom, the result was a festival with a mild identity crisis.

Even a charitable survey of the In Person guest list would have to conclude that many targets were unavailable. Sir Patrick Stewart was a worthy headliner, but it was long way down from there to the Brothers Quay and Graham King for art-house-averse or non-credits-reading ticket buyers, and both the animators and the producer spoke to houses that were a long way from full.

It was though a good year to ponder the British end of the program. "Outcast," an Edinburgh-set monster mash from local director Colm McCarthy, has a grimy wizards-among-us tone borrowed from John Constantine and an opening theme worthy of John Carpenter, but had the usual problem of what to do in the last reel when the monster has to finally stand under the lights. "Huge" is guaranteed a high profile thanks to the presence of practically every British comedian currently breathing, but the film is very tentative in its transfer from stage play to screenplay and neglects to add anything cinematic. "SoulBoy" was the pick of the bunch, the best kind of coming-of-age fable with some fire in its belly thanks to a setting in Britain's sweaty 1970s northern soul scene and a soundtrack to match. Director Shimmy Marcus keeps the tone under tight control and finds the perfect role for Nichola Burley, so good here last year in "Kicks."

Brit flicks were in focus because the retrospective season, After the Wave, presented a clutch of lost and rare examples from the 1970s and '80s. Pitching Ken Russell's "Savage Messiah" and Mike Hodges's "Pulp" into the ring with almost any of the current crop was not a fair fight; the days when Britain made mischievous, dangerous films that threatened to take your head off at any moment now seem as far off as the dinosaurs.

Or perhaps not entirely: "Mr. Nice," Bernard Rose's loose-fitting biopic of antihero and drug smuggler Howard Marks, hits some of the same notes. Throwing restraint out of the window, the director mashes Rhys Ifans into old news footage with the joins clearly visible, unleashes Chloë Sevigny on the role of an English housewife and lets David Thewlis shoot for Earth orbit as an IRA man with a taste for bestiality porn. The wild stylistic jags make for real momentum, and the whole thing swims under Philip Glass music — altogether, a fine collection of old-school attitude, produced by Luc (son of Nic) Roeg.

Even further off the beaten track, there was some gratifyingly wild stuff going on. Iyari Wertta's delirious peyote trip "The Black Panther" plants crumpled private dick Nico (Enrique Arreola) in a familiar noir setup and manages to stay relatively normal for several minutes. Then the phone rings and it's God on the line, after which UFOs, angels of death, body-hopping aliens and a cryogenically frozen mariachi guarantee that normality isn't coming back. Alex Cox would approve.

He might approve of Mike McCarthy's "Cigarette Girl," too, in which the formidably upholstered Cori Dials prowls the smokers' ghetto of a dystopian future, which looks a lot like parts of the director's hometown that don't need shooting permits. Mr. McCarthy certainly seems to approve of Mr. Cox, judging by the film's punk aesthetic and generic canned goods, while Russ Meyer would have enthusiastically approved of Ms. Dials.

I approved completely of Zach Clark's "Vacation!," the follow up to last year's "Modern Love is Automatic," in which four friends (Maggie Ross, Lydia Hyslop and Melodie Sisk, all from "Modern Love," plus Trieste Kelly Dunn) decamp to the Outer Banks for a week of drinking, sunbathing and acid-dropping. One of them will not be going home, ever. Everything good about the earlier film is back, only more so: The blazing color fields are even more scorching; the uncomfortable silences between friends yawn deeper; and the jokes are even blacker. What's different is the style, which takes a swan dive into the experimental from the high board. Sex and death and music haven't got stuck in the same blender quite like this since Kenneth Anger last put his camera down.


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