Saturday, August 27, 2005

Miscellaneous festival stuff

Now that I've finally finished my last Festival show - although the Fringe actually goes on for another two days - it's time to start clearing some of my write-up backlog. And also, move on to some more mainstream stuff.

So... in due course, I'll get to the Dresden Dolls (or rather, Amanda Palmer and her Cabaret All-Stars), The Aristocrats and Asylum. Those two movies both come out in Britain on September 9, anyway, and Amanda Palmer simply deserves to be raved about at far greater length. In the meantime, here's some other stuff from the Film Festival.

Stewart Lee, 90's Comedian. Stewart Lee was the other half of Lee & Herring, and he's been one of the most critically acclaimed stand-ups in Britain for over a decade. He also wrote the notorious Jerry Springer: The Opera, which was a big success in the West End and universally adored, except by Christian fundamentalists, who don't count. Unfortunately, while their opinions don't count, the fact that they're threatening to kill you does, so Lee's had a bit of a tough year. Naturally enough, he's drawing heavily on that this year, with some unabashed evangelical-baiting, all of which I heartily applaud. On the other hand, the closing segment of the show - essentially a Christ-themed remix of the same "overflowing with sick" routine he's been doing for years - teeters on the edge of overdoing it, not on grounds of taste, but of length. But Lee excels at dragging his listeners to places they don't really want or expect to go to in a comedy show, slowing the pace to an agonising crawl, and somehow holding the audience with him as he goes. It's as much theatrical monologue as comedy. "I've been doing stand-up comedy for 17 years," he says, in his slow, measured monotone, "and I can tell when there's tension in the room." More to the point, he knows how to create the tension, and he knows how to use it for laughs when it's there. He's doing a run at the Soho Theatre with the same show in September, so the Londoners among you should go and see him. There's a UK tour after that - check the website.

Guy X is a film adaptation of John Griesemer's novel No One Thinks of Greenland, which I really only went to see because it's director Saul Metzstein's follow-up to Late Night Shopping. I've always had a soft spot for Late Night Shopping, partly because I went to school with the guy who wrote it, but partly because I genuinely think it's a nice little indie comedy. Set in 1979, it's the story of a US soldier who finds himself dumped in a godforsaken and supposedly strategic base in Greenland due to a clerical error which the insane local commanding officer refuses to admit has happened. The first half hour is basically a colder version of MASH or Catch 22, after which the film finally remembers to start the plot. Our hero then discovers the true purpose of the base, in a mystery story which meanders around for an hour or so before giving up, rolling over, and dying in a bluster of plot convenience. Supposedly the novel was very good, and I might read it some time to find out what the ending was, since if they actually did explain it in this film, I must not have been paying attention. It has all the hallmarks of a director and lead actor (Jason Biggs?!?) taking a hopelessly unsuitable film in a desperate attempt to avoid typecasting.

The Holyrood Files is the 90 minute international cinema edit of the four-hour BBC TV series about the building of the Scottish Parliament. It leaves you with the general feeling that while the building is very nice, everyone inside it should be drowned in a sack. Director Stuart Greig claims to have been aiming for an impartial film, but has actually followed the story primarily from the perspective of the contractors and consultants - who, in most journalists' versions, are the villains. Greig sides with the consultants in blaming the politicians, who commission inquiry after inquiry and then express amazement when told that it'll take time and money to sort through and copy six years worth of files. It's a worthwhile project for Scottish audiences in that it gives a side of the story which everyone else, both politicians and press, has deliberately ignored because it didn't fit their preferred narrative. But the claim that it's impartial is highly dodgy, and the decision to omit proper coverage of the tendering stage - which every other inquiry considered to be a big part of the problem - is obviously wrong. Asked about this in the Q&A, Greig essentially said that he left it out because it was too boring, which is a very bad answer.

Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family is one of those documentaries which is kind of a freakshow for liberals. Instead of pointing and laughing, we nod and go "Wow, I really feel I've gained an insight into the bearded woman now." Sam, Samantha and Stephen live in a three-way relationship (the two men are bi), and have been deeply in love for years. Samantha is pregnant. By one of them. The film starts off with the obvious curiosity factor of how this relationship works. Then, once you get over that bit, there's basically a stretch of everyone being really happy, and god it's dull. Fortunately from the film's point of view, but not from the participants', it all goes horribly wrong after the kid is born and stress sets in all over the place. There are some quite interesting questions raised about whether the relationship is fundamentally unstable and a dreadful idea from the word go, or whether it was basically workable and they broke up for the same reasons everyone else does. But you'd really have to be a people-watching type to be interested in this for it's whole length, and frankly, I'm not.

Charlotte Hatherley's Grey Will Fade was one of my favourite albums of 2004, which is why I went along to her Cabaret Voltaire set on the same night as the Dresden Dolls show. Normally this would be impossible, but somehow the Fringe convinces people that it's a good idea to schedule gigs at ridiculous times such as 11.45pm on a Wednesday. This makes it possible for people like me to go to two shows in one night, but also makes it rather less likely that any locals will turn up in large numbers. The crowd is respectable but hardly packed, and Cabaret Voltaire is a tiny venue. Not surprisingly, she does the whole album and pads out the set with an Ash B-side and a cover version of "Kids in America." Grey Will Fade is a weird record which seems to think that no song is complete until it's done at least two choruses - "Kim Wilde" has more hooks in one track than most bands use on an album - and jumps all over the place as a result. It's not really suited to the slightly questionable sound quality of live gigs in small venues. "Kids in America" was great, though.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is, as the title might suggest, a documentary about the mentally ill singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, best known for, er, Kurt Cobain owning one of his T-shirts. As I sat there waiting for the film to start, I flicked through my copy of Fest to see what their reviewer made of it. Two stars. Oh hell. And I can see his point, unfortunately. Director Jeff Feuerzeig is convinced that Johnston is a genius on a par with Bob Dylan, as are most of the contributors and, to be fair, a large number of music critics. But if you don't already accept that, this film is unlikely to convince you, and you'll spent the running time wondering what's supposed to be so special about the delusional guy who can't play the guitar. Brief snippets of his songs, many with sound quality so poor it's almost impossible to work out what the chords are, are unlikely to convince unfamiliar viewers. I was more impressed by the clips of his songs on Amazon than I was by the film itself, which is saying something, really. Feuerzeig seems to badly miss the point, complaining in the Q&A that Johnston has been marginalised by an unsympathetic press and industry unprepared for his talent. But Johnston was offered a multi-album deal by Elektra, and did get signed to another major label. (Sure, they dropped him after one record, but it did sell under 6,000 copies.) The reason so few people have heard of Johnston is that, as one of the contributors frankly acknowledges, most of his records are "unlistenable to the general populace." Even Feuerzeig, in choosing a song for the closing credits, buckles and uses a collaboration with Jad Fair. Fans of Johnston's music will love the film; anyone not familiar with him is likely to be bemused.

Gypo is the thirty-seventh film to made under the ultra-lo-fi Dogma 95 manifesto - yes, people are still making these things, ten years on - and the first from a British director. Pauline McLynn and Paul McGann are in it, but to be honest, it's a bit of a trudge. The "same story from three different perspectives" format is something a bit different for a Dogma film, but at the end of the day it comes off as a parade of Guardian-reader stereotypes - the tabloid reading husband is a racist hypocrite and asshole, the Romany refugees are saintly, and the villains seem to have missed the point of Dogma entirely and turned up dressed for a pantomime. (It's even a little doubtful whether you should have such obvious villains in a Dogma film, but I leave such questions to the purists.) McLynn's character is the only truly well-rounded one. The acting is fantastic; the script has its heart in the right place but needs serious work.

The Moustache, my token foreign film for this year, must have seemed like a good idea when I ordered the ticket. Marc shaves off his moustache on a whim. But it turns out that nobody remembers him having a moustache in the first place - with existentialist consequences! Yes, that's right, it's French. Marc gets very worked up about this, and further glitches in reality follow. It's the sort of thing that might work for a Charlie Kaufman or a David Lynch, but this film plays it straight and in deadly earnest. And since there's nothing the characters can really do about it, it's really just a whole film of people wondering whether they're going mad, and the situation getting slightly worse as it goes on. There's not enough here to fill a film, and the desperately literal approach just flags up glaring plot holes such as "Why doesn't he just show everyone a photograph?" (I suppose the idea is that the reality warp keeps making him forget to do so, but that certainly doesn't come across on the screen.) Fans of Chinese public transport won't want to miss a ten-minute dialogue-free segment of Marc taking various ferries around Hong Kong, which really is exquisitely tedious. Might have made a good TV drama at half the length.