I don’t normally write film reviews. I find it really difficult to find the right words that capture the essence of a film and dissect it as well as so many film bloggers and journalists I admire. My film knowledge is hella patchy and I struggle to put the film into context. Everyone seems to ‘get’ something I just don’t, even though I studied film for five years in Sixth Form College and University. Nevertheless, I’m going to start challenging myself and I thought writing short and snappy EIFF 2019 reviews would be a great place to start.
EIFF stands for Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it’s the first film festival I have attended with Press accreditation for Almost Ginger! I wrote a highlights post about Edinburgh International Film Festival in its entirety which you can read here. This post will purely be mini-reviews of all eight Press & Industry screenings I attended from June 18th – 22nd. So, let’s dive into my EIFF 2019 reviews!
Edinburgh International Film Festival: EIFF 2019 Reviews
My EIFF 2019 Reviews
1. The Art of Self-Defence (2019) dir. Riley Stearns
Run time: 109m Language: English Screenplay: Riley Stearns Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots
Watching The Art of Self-Defence, I kinda got the feeling I’d seen this film before. The film opens with deadpan Jesse Eisenberg as our protagonist Casey Davies (honestly, I don’t believe Eisenberg comes with another facial expression) sitting in a café before he’s ripped into by a French couple who don’t know that he can understand them. A series of events meticulously unfold one after another leading Davies to take up karate and become consumed by the sport, nay, the art.
The film is precise and as exacting as flat-packed furniture. There are no throw cushions or wall hangings, it’s minimalist and streamlined. It’s Wes Anderson without the bubblegum fairy colour palette and tone. Actually, the film reminded me of Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor (2000) because of the slow-rolling, absurdist satire. It relaxes you with a few well-timed gags in the beginning and unexpectantly punches you into a different story than the one you bought a ticket for. Not with a punch with a fist but with a foot, you understand.
The more sceptical filmgoer may raise an eyebrow to The Art of Self-Defence but for those who appreciate a moderate burn and weird twists, it looks like a pared-back Swedish style hasn’t just made its way into our living rooms but maybe our cinema too. And I’m kinda here for it. 4/5
2. The Dead Don’t Die (2019) dir. Jim Jarmusch
Run time: 103m Language: English Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, etc.
As Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009) have demonstrated, lighter and comedic zombie films are 100% achievable. I’m not sure what supernatural being is supposed to be big right now (aren’t we back on vampires? Or werewolves?) but even if it’s not fashionable, there should always be room for fun zombie flicks. So, why the heck is The Dead Don’t Die, which is a zombie film set in small-town middle America, not even a little bit better than it actually is?!
Bill Murray and Adam Driver play cops in the originally named town ‘Centerville’ and a freak of nature causes a number of strange events on earth. One is that it stays lighter a lot later than normal, another is that the dead are alive again. The film thinks it’s funny. It’s not. The film thinks it’s being really clever by weaving in many, many meta elements and fourth-wall-breaking. It really isn’t. And the film thinks it’s adding a fresh take to the zombie movie (which it absolutely could’ve) but really frustratingly, completely missed the mark.
The film is mildly entertaining in some instances (I did enjoy Caleb Landry Jones’ outcast shop owner Bobby Wiggins and Tom Waits’ as Hermit Bob). But it’s just plain boring and head-scratching in others. I’d forgive a first-time director but Jim Jarmusch should know better. I think audiences were actually ready for another lighter and comedic zombie film but that’s just not what we got. Definitely the worst film out of the ones I saw at EIFF 2019. 2.5/5
3. The Captor/Stockholm (2018) dir. Robert Budreau
Run time: 92m Language: English Screenplay: Robert Budreau Starring: Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace, Mark Strong
It’s 1970s Stockholm and the city is awash with a sepia tone. The glasses are big, the hair is big and the collars are even bigger. You’d be forgiven for thinking The Captor was going to be a Nordic Easy Rider (1969) but the film is actually about the real-life event that gave a name to the psychological condition where kidnappers empathise or form alliances with their captors. It’s called Stockholm Syndrome, maybe you’ve heard of it.
Likeable Ethan Hawke plays a Swedish-American fantasist dressed as a middle-aged rocker who seizes the biggest bank in Stockholm and takes a few hostages to force Swedish police to meet his demands. His man-child, staggering exterior and lack of violent personality help the hostages relax and soften to his point of view. It’s only about 45 minutes in, whilst thoroughly enjoying the nostalgia trip, did I realise that this film should probably be a lot darker and think-ier than it is.
Despite not scratching too far under the surface or offering any discussion around Stockholm Syndrome, I couldn’t help but fall for the film’s swagger and light-heartedness. Maybe it’s because I love Nordic culture and relish it being on screen. Or maybe because I do believe the actors gave fantastic performances for the characters they were given. Either way, I dug this film. Despite the slowing down in the last act, The Captor got me hooked. 3.5/5
4. She’s Missing (2019) dir. Alexandra McGuinness
Run time: 98m Language: English Screenplay: Alexandra McGuinness Starring: Lucy Fry, Eiza González
Watching She’s Missing, I immediately compared it in my mind to two other independent American films: Wind River (2017) and Katie Says Goodbye (2016). The former is a fictional piece in a remote territory in the USA which sought to highlight how many Native American women are currently missing (which we don’t know because it isn’t measured). Katie Says Goodbye was set in a very similar America that She’s Missing is set in, and how the titular character of Katie wanted to escape that life.
She’s Missing is about two best friends, Heidi is more responsible yet naive and Jane is fiery and promiscuous. When the latter goes missing, the former attempts to track her down with very little help or evidence to suggest what happened. What She’s Missing is trying to achieve is admirable (like Wind River). Yet unlike the Taylor Sheridan film, I’d say it tries to force too many issues into one film and doesn’t go into enough detail about the one it really wants to comment on. In one disjointed scene, Heidi goes on a date with a man who builds detention centres for illegal immigrants but that issue fizzled out with no resolution.
The cinematography is just as you would hope for an independent film set in middle America. Warm yet bleak complete with oh so familiar diners and houses that authentically paint a picture of these girls lives. Though the acting seemed slightly off for the style of film, they were multi-faceted and compelling. This could be an important and necessary narrative, but the story needed tightening just a smidge. 3/5
5. Varda by Agnès (2019) dir. Agnès Varda
Run time: 116m Language: French Screenplay: Agnès Varda Starring: Agnès Varda
Would you believe me if I said that after watching Varda by Agnès, I have now only watched acclaimed French film director Agnès Varda’s first and final films? Well, it’s true. I’ve watched La Pointe-Courte (1955) and her final film posthumously. And for those of you who already know that Varda by Agnès is a documentary recounting memories and snippets from her life and body of work, then you’ll know that’s not exactly a productive method of watching her back catalogue.
Nevertheless, watching Varda by Agnès was an absolute joy. It was as if she was in the room with us recounting memories as and when they appeared in her peculiar, imaginative mind. We are given behind the scenes footage and thought processes behind certain decisions and it’s all delivered to us in whichever artistic way Agnès Varda wanted us to appreciate it in. What an absolute treat for anyone who calls themselves a fan of cinema. 4.5/5
6. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2018) dir. Rob Garver
Run time: 96m Language: English Screenplay: Rob Garver Starring: Pauline Kael, Sarah Jessica Parker, etc.
I had never heard of Pauline Kael before watching What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not old enough, not knowledgeable enough about movies or that I’m not American enough. Pauline Kael was a film critic who is most known for writing for The New Yorker. She’s known for her unabashedly opinionated and sharp thoughts on cinema. The documentary follows the story of her life and attempts to dissect her brand of film criticism and her own critics and cheerleaders.
The documentary is well-made and I find the narration from Sarah Jessica Parker extremely intriguing. How is it that this woman is so revered and notorious in the film industry that I’d never even heard of her before? And apparently, Sarah Jessica Parker is such a huge fan that she got to narrate the documentary about Pauline Kael? I can only surmise that it’s partly because she was a woman. Not just any woman, but an opinionated one who kind of ‘fell’ into film criticism. She loved all different types of movies but wasn’t a high brow, pretentious film fan by any means and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to know her and her work. It makes me wonder just how many other amazing women there are in this industry. 4.5/5
7. End of Sentence (2019) dir. Elfar Adalsteins
Run time: 96m Language: English Screenplay: Michael Armbruster Starring: John Hawkes, Logan Lerman, Sarah Bolger
I chose to watch End of Sentence and the next film over Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (2019). And boy, am I glad I did. But because of Go Back to China (next film in this list) and not so much this film. End of Sentence, on paper, should have been right up my street. It’s about a dad and son (recently released from prison) who travel back to their wife/mother’s native land of Ireland to spread her ashes as per her last wish. Family tensions derail the trip several times and it’s hit and miss as to whether the father and son will complete their mission.
C’ mon, I love road trip movies. I love the emotional journey the characters undertake as well as the physical one. And I love how unpredictable they are and the figurative and literally twists and turns they take. While End of Sentence was never dull and had some interesting scenes, I felt it was just an okay film. The plot took itself too seriously but wasn’t dramatic enough to be heartwrenching nor comedic enough to be heart-warming. Plus it has really weird plot tangents like the biker ex-boyfriend which added nothing.
If you take away the pretty Irish scenery, the film may even verge on boring. Which is so unfortunate because the foundations of the plot are really great! Also, the dad and the son’s chemistry was weird for most of the film. And neither was a very likeable character which sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t and in this film, it definitely does not. This could have been a really great indie road trip movie but a lot of different elements stop short for me. 2.5/5
8. Go Back to China (2019) dir. Emily Ting
Run time: 97m Language: English, Chinese Screenplay: Emily Ting Starring: Anna Akana, Richard Ng, Lynn Chen
Possibly my favourite film of EIFF 2019?! It was different, it was relatable to 2019, it was directed by a woman and it was a lovely film! YouTube sensation Anna Akana stars as Sasha Li, a Chinese-American living on the west coast on her father’s dime. When she blows half of her trust fund in a short space of time, her father cuts her off and demands that she return to China to work for him and learn the true meaning of hard work. As a young, rich girl who has lived most of her life in America, she’s a fish out of water and finds it difficult to navigate her Chinese heritage.
I think this film does an excellent job of exploring Chinese and American culture clashes for someone with multiple heritages. It’s not just the language but the food, distribution of wealth and family life. The director, Emily Ting, does a stunning job of making Go Back to China a light-hearted comedy-drama embedded in real, important issues for Chinese-Americans told through Sasha Li’s life. Yes, she’s still a rich girl and her problems aren’t all that but I feel like I saw a really enjoyable candy-coloured, fun movie and learnt a thing or two as well. If you loved Crazy Rich Asians (2018) then you’ll love Go Back to China too. 4/5
Let me know if you liked reading about my Edinburgh International Film Festival/EIFF 2019 reviews! Did you agree with my EIFF 2019 reviews or not? Let me know in the comments below!