Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Tuesday 21/08/2007
Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Thursday 23/08/2007

Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Wednesday 22/08/2007

Reviewed today: Breath, A Conversation With Edith Head, Dickens Unplugged, John Bishop, Namikibashi Shorts, Madame I, Mala Noche, Nijinsky's Last Dance, UK Shorts 2, Urinetown: The Musical.

Madame I: possibly the only still this week that's larger than actual size The Edinburgh International Film Festival may be going to hell in a handbasket (according to The Independent), but we should still make the most of it while it's part of the whole August festival jamboree. So today is an intensive film-based day. And despite The Belated Birthday Girl's protestations, I'm insisting that the first item of the day is Madame I, a short film that's part of the EIFF's experimental Black Box programme. Beverley Hood's two-minute digital animation is based on a psychological case study: the tale of a woman whose inability to recognise the feelings from her own body ultimately makes her virtually incapable of dealing with anything outside it. Madame I tells the story in her own emotionally-charged words - but Hood shows us how disconnected she is from human feeling by generating her dialogue with a voice synthesiser, and representing her visually with a CGI character.

It's a film that would certainly hold its own in the middle of a typical Edinburgh shorts programme: what makes it particularly interesting is the manner of its distribution. Because Madame I has been designed to be viewed on a mobile phone. You download the film in one of two ways - either by sending a text message ("SW MADAME" to 80160), or by pulling it down from the website. The result is a 1.27MB file in .3gp format, which should be playable on any decent phone. Unfortunately, it looks like my Nokia 7610 isn't a decent phone - it plays the sound just fine, but the images don't appear on screen at all. The film is, of course, playable on a computer if you've got QuickTime or any other 3gp compatible player, but it's not quite the same. I can imagine that seeing Madame I trapped within the confines of your phone would give an added emotional impact to her plight - seeing her in a small window in the middle of a big screen doesn't work as well. Still, it's an interesting little piece, and I'll be curious to see if the idea of film festival-sponsored downloading takes off.

From there it's off to the Church Hill Theatre, because after nearly two decades of Fringe-going I have still never seen a single production of all the ones that American High School Theatre Festival brings over every year. Honestly, I've never been to one. I've never seen a single medical revue in all my time here either, but that's down to personal prejudice: in the case of AHSTF, it's something I simply haven't got around to till now. The production I use to break my American High School cherry is Urinetown: The Musical, courtesy of the upper school performing arts division of The Harker School in San Jose, California. The original production of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis' cult show was the talk of off-Broadway when I visited New York in 2002, but I couldn't fit it into my schedule at the time. I've been curious to see it ever since, and this amateur production has finally satisfied my curiosity.

A chronic water shortage has turned American cities into living hellholes. In order to conserve water, toilet facilities have been privatised: the whole sanitary system is run by the Urine Good Company, who charge extortionate fees to pee. Anyone who breaks the rules and indulges in free urination is packed off to Urinetown, where they are never seen again. With the gap between the poor and the rich widening by the day, revolution is on the cards, and there may only be two people capable of leading it: toilet attendant Bobby Strong (Patrick Sweeney) and his sweetheart Hope Cladwell (Siobhan Stevenson), who happens to be the daughter of the boss of the UGC.

It's easy to see why Urinetown was such a hit when it first came out: it's a prime example of having your cake and eating it, working as a sendup of the inspirational musical while simultaneously being a pretty good example of one. The frequent discussions between Officer Lockstock (D.J. Blickenstaff) and Little Sally (Lauren Ammatuna) lay bare all the cliches of the genre, particularly when the cop dismisses a possible plot complication with the reassurance that "audiences at musicals only really like to think about one thing at a time." But the song and dance numbers are excellent in their own right, and would easily fit into Les Mis or something similar if it wasn't for all the references to micturation.

Laura DeKraker Lang-Ree's production does the show proud, as do her cast and crew. One of the advantages of a high school production is all the cheap child labour you have at your disposal, and as a result Urinetown probably has more people on stage than pretty much any other show I've seen on the Fringe this year. There are a couple of rough edges, notably one or two occasions where the lyrics don't come across clearly: then again, this may be the first musical I've seen in years which doesn't have every single cast member radio-miked to buggery, so it's an achievement that so much of the show is audible. But the sheer energy and enthusiasm of everyone concerned makes this a really entertaining 90 minutes. Harker have gone back home now, as this was their last performance: but there are plenty of other schools performing at Church Hill Theatre for the rest of the Fringe, and if they're all this good then you really need to get up there.

Back to the Filmhouse, where we sneak a peek at FilmFan updating his Film Festival blog in the cafe bar, and open up a sweep on how many days from the end he'll stop updating it this year. We don't have time to do much ourselves other than wave at him, grab a sandwich, and then run into Filmhouse 1 to watch Namikibashi Shorts. Namikibashi is the collective name for two Japanese directors - music video guru Junji Kojima, and comedian Kentaro Kobayashi. The films they make tend to star Kobayashi and his partner Jin Katagiri: together they're known as the comedy duo Rahmens, a partnership so well established that they perform in the Japanese versions of Apple's PC and Mac adverts.

Most of the ten shorts in this programme are in their ongoing series The Japanese Tradition. Ostensibly, they introduce key elements of Japanese culture to Western audiences: inevitably, they are packed full of hilarious lies, sending up both Japanese foibles and the stereotypes that Westerners build around them. The first thing of theirs I ever saw was their short film about sushi, which is embedded here and gives you a feel for the sort of understated humour you can expect. There are many more Japanese Tradition shorts on YouTube, but one of the advantages of this festival programme is the chance to see them all subtitled in English, which you only get rarely on the YouTube versions. (In fact, the version of Sushi shown at the Filmhouse is an English dub, which actually wrecks some of the comic timing of the narration.)

This programme works in pretty much the same vein for the full 90 minutes. Most of the shorts follow the standard Japanese Tradition template, with deadpan narration and plenty of visual surprises in both the performances and design. The ones that don't follow that template are probably the most interesting, though. Room Service is a more traditional silent piece, about a hotel employee with almost supernatural suitcase-packing skills. Sakura Wonderful Jet introduces you to an airline with very strict boundaries between its First, Business and Economy service: another English dub in this screening, although the humour in this film is so broad you can actually understand most of the gags in unsubtitled Japanese. Best of all is the half hour magnum opus of Armchair Theory - it starts as a lecture on how to pick up women (which in Japan appears to require a lot of stalking and emotional manipulation), before the second half becomes a drama showing how these techniques work in practice. Damn good fun all round, although be warned that having lunch in a Japanese restaurant immediately after seeing the films about sushi, riceballs and chopsticks may result in you giggling like an idiot all through the meal.

More shorts after that meal, this time from the UK, hence the title UK Shorts 2. There are half a dozen films in this programme, and it's fair to say that there are a lot fewer laughs here than in the Namikibashi collection. The main reason why we're here is to see the directorial debut of actor and living legend Paddy Considine, Dog Altogether: and its level of bleakness sets the tone for most of the other films here. Peter Mullan (another living legend, who directs a bit himself in his spare time) plays Joseph, a drunken, aggressive man who's slowly alienating himself from everyone around him: when his dog dies, it's the start of a downward spiral that only has the faintest glimmer of hope at its base. Considine controls it all beautifully (I'd imagine he's been watching his mate Shane Meadows very closely over the past few years), and somehow gives Joseph reasons for us to sympathise with him despite his obnoxiousness. But it's all a little one-note, and that faint glimmer of redemption isn't quite strong enough for me to work as an ending. Still: a fine debut, and I'd be really keen to see more.

Most of the shorts here don't even offer that glimmer. Ruth Paxton's She Wanted To Be Burnt is an impressionistic portrait of a young girl trying to escape some sort of unnamed fate: an entire existence spent crying, running and screaming, which is quite impressive technically but doesn't do much for your mood. Youth - Jane Linfoot's three unconnected vignettes of adolescent life - has one good laugh at the end of its first section, but mostly focusses on the confusion and aggression of being a teenager. Barney Elliot's True Colours is probably the best constructed of the dramatic shorts, showing how the tension in a family can escalate to boiling point over a simple misunderstanding.

As is usually the case in shorts programmes of mixed genre, the funnier ones tend to come off best by comparison. Mat Kirkby's Hard To Swallow uses a cast of comedy circuit B-listers (with Richard Herring probably the best-known name) to depict the dinner party from hell: a little bit too forced, particularly in its final revelations, but with a few decent laughs in there. And Stefan Stuckert's Medium Rare is the closest thing to a satisfying short story in this collection (it's based on one by Hans Herbst), showing the relationship that develops when a hunted man takes refuge in a restaurant.

March of the sinister Duks Is it really six years since the last time I was utterly freaked out in a cinema? Looks like it. Wandering round Hong Kong in 2001, I went to see a film called The Isle without having the faintest idea what it was about, presumably because the concept of genital mutilation with fish hooks is a difficult one to get across on a poster. Still, it was obvious then that Korean director Kim Ki-Duk was a talent to be watched. He's calmed down a lot since those early days, and by comparison Breath is almost Disneyesque in its charm and willingness to please. That's by comparison with his other work, of course: we're still talking about a film whose pre-credits sequence features a man stabbing himself in the throat with a sharpened toothbrush.

That man is death row criminal Jang Jin (Chang Chen), and this is his second failed suicide attempt. Sculptress Yeon (Zia) hears about his case on the TV, and becomes obsessed with it. She starts abandoning her husband and child on a regular basis to visit Jang Jin in prison, claiming to be an ex-girlfriend of his. She gives him photos, decorates the room where they meet, and performs musical numbers for him. All this serves to make Yeon's husband insanely jealous: meanwhile, one of Jang Jin's cellmates has similar feelings himself.

This is, basically, a Kim Ki-Duk film - he's now become his own genre, there's not really any other way of describing what he does. Once again, we have a leading male character who says nothing for the duration of the film: once again, we have two people coming together in what looks from the outside like a doomed relationship, with no clues for the audience as to what they see in each other. Is any of this a problem? Not at all: the lack of character motivation is intriguing rather than frustrating. As ever, Kim shoots all of this beautifully, even the brief moments of nastiness (though his motif of animal abuse seems to be absent from this film, for a change). It's 85 minutes long, but the story will resonate with you for a lot longer than that.

Our final film of the day is even shorter, a mere 78 minutes - and yet to me, Mala Noche feels a lot longer than Breath. Mind you, I'm prepared to admit this could be the onset of the mid-Festival crash that my body's been due for the past couple of days. Made in 1985, Mala Noche is the first film by director Gus van Sant, made before he hit the indie big time with Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho: it's showing here to accompany his latest work, Paranoid Park, which unfortunately won't fit into our schedule this week. It's the story of Walt (Tim Streeter), a young drifter working in a shop, who develops a crush on Mexican immigrant Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). It's a relationship conducted in broken Spanish, and with the added complication that Johnny isn't particularly interested in the idea. Still, that isn't going to stop Walt.

There's some appeal in seeing the early development of van Sant's style - in this film he uses a lot of quick cutting, unlike the long takes we associate with him nowadays. And the black and white photography shows up his influences in sixties art cinema quite dramatically. But to be honest, it's all a little dull, even at this short a length. Van Sant has subsequently depicted these characters over and over again, and done it much better than he does it here. Still, that might just be the exhaustion talking: it didn't do it for me, but your mileage may vary.

And let's be fair, I've seen six movie things today, so I'm allowed to be tired. Okay, one of them was a two minute digital short, but we've also had two feature films and two programmes of shorts. And Urinetown? Well, we've travelled to the Cineworld multiplex twice by taxi this week, and in both cases we've found that nobody calls the Cineworld by its proper name: they all remember it from when it opened as the UGC. See, Urinetown does have a movie connection after all.

Notes From Spank's Pals

Diane - My Tuesday afternoon choices were two contrasting one person shows at Hill Street Theatre, one of the hottest venues on the Fringe! Ricardo Melendez in Nijinsky's Last Dance wins the award for sweatiest performer on the Fringe, in spite of wearing next to nothing: while Susan Clausen in A Conversation With Edith Head complete with tweed suit and high necked black jumper manages to keep her cool. Clausen also knows how to cool down the audience - we were all provided with fans as we entered this clammy space for her show. Both shows were excellent.

Melendez' Nijinsky is discovered in his room in a psychiatric hospital, having suffered a nervous breakdown. He takes us back to his early career as a child prodigy. As an attractive youth he attracts the attention of a Russian Count, and Dhiagalev of the famous Ballet Russes. Although he prefers women, Nijinsky is forced to pleasure Dhiagalev in return for artistic patronage. He rises to fame, but when he tries to break away his career goes into freefall.

Melendez is hampered by lack of space, but through graceful movement he manages to convey Nijinsky's power as a dancer, and he has the muscular athletic body which makes him ideal for the role. My one criticism would be that wasn't always immediately clear who he was playing when he switched from Nijinsky to the other characters in the dancer's life.

If Melendez impressed as Nijinsky, Susan Clausen went one better - she really inhabited the character of Edith Head, the top American costume designer. Her career spanned 58 years of filmmaking, during which she dressed nearly every major star in the industry. The show, written and performed by Clausen, takes the form of an audience with Edith Head. She invites our questions but, in fact, the questions come from a plant in the audience who asks Edith about her career. Anecdotes follow about Bette Davis, Grace Kelly, Mae West and numerous others.

Clausen is in character even after we have left the theatre, as she stands in the foyer thanking us for coming. She conveys Head's character as a tough, professional, but ultimately kind woman who won more Oscars than any of the stars she dressed.

Both these productions were worth the sweatbox atmosphere of the Hill Street Theatre, and deserve a bigger audience - and a bigger stage!

Old Lag - John Bishop is very charismatic. He can certainly talk, with the gift of the gab, which is partly why he fell so easily into comedy, and probably helped explain his success in sales and marketing. The show is the tale of how he fell out of love with his wife but not his children, thanks to the job that was turning him serious and consuming his time to a high level. He fell into comedy as an escape and therapy, telling no-one that he was doing it. The story continues to bring the tale up to date where he has told his employer to stick the job up his arse. The only audience participation was to draw attention to the fact that many people would like to drop their jobs and do something else, but lack the courage or do not want to lose the security.

Diane - Dickens Unplugged is devised and performed by the same group who produced the long-running hit The Complete Works Of Shakespeare - Abridged under the name of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Subsequent shows like All The Great Books have not worked as well, but Dickens Unplugged is a treat. In fact, I preferred this latest offering to the Shakespeare show.

Rather than try and condense all of the great 19th century author's works, they concentrate on three books - Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol. The talented all-singing-and-playing cast condense these novels in humorous fashion but also find time to tell us something of Dickens' life, hardships, successes and attitudes to women. It's a fun hour, but you'll also learn something about Dickens in the process!

Highlights included Agnes' lament, where David Copperfield's fiance Agnes bemoans his fondness for airheads over intellectual women, and Tiny Tim's song when the lame boy's crutch is turned round to reveal an electric guitar. Like Shakespeare Abridged, I'm sure this show will reappear either in the West End or as a touring production.


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