There's a t-shirt currently available on the internet with the slogan Joss Whedon Is My Master Now. We all know someone who could use one of those, don't we? Oh, just me, then.
Joss Whedon, for those of you who don't know, is the writer/director previously best known for Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel on telly. The last couple of years of his life have been a bit of a rollercoaster, to say the least. For his third TV show, he came up with Firefly, essentially a Western transposed to outer space. An interesting concept, beautifully executed, but Fox TV lost interest in it and cancelled the show after a dozen episodes or so. However, Whedon's fanbase is a somewhat rabid one, and the sheer enthusiasm of Firefly fans has led to the release of the series on DVD, and now a spin-off feature film called Serenity.
The Belated Birthday Girl, it's safe to say, is one of those fans. So when it was announced that the world premiere of Serenity would be held at Edinburgh, along with a separate on-stage interview with Whedon, I was under some pressure to get her tickets. Not as much pressure as the Film Festival's box office computer, though. The online booking was apparently set up by a consultancy called Line, whose slogan is 'websites that work'. To which my response would be 'no they fucking don't.' On the day booking opened, the site was crashing all over the place, at one point losing two tickets for the world premiere from my shopping cart because it couldn't validate any credit cards. Eventually, thanks to my phoning up the Festival admin department and whining like a bitch, I got hold of two tickets for the overflow screening on Wednesday.
This, however, is not enough for The BBG, as she wants to be at the premiere (which will be attended by Whedon and the cast), as well as the Joss interview the next day. Which is why, after wrapping up breakfast just before noon today, she heads off to the Cineworld to potentially start queuing for a returned ticket for a film that won't be starting for another nine and a half hours. Myself, I'm not that fussed, so this means I have an entire day to myself, to indulge in shows that she wouldn't want to see. Well, that would be the case if Cineworld management hadn't told her to piss off after half an hour, telling her that they won't even consider starting a returns queue before 9pm.
So with The BBG back in tow again, we need to come up with some snap decisions on how to fill her afternoon before she heads back to the cinema. Which means you finally get an explanation of the photo at the top of the page. That's playwright Mark Ravenhill, whose new piece Product is currently playing at the Traverse in that awkward 9pm slot we've already got booked for the rest of the week. However, thanks to the attractively-named Growling Monkey Theatre Group, we can see a production of his earlier play Some Explicit Polaroids. Written around the tail end of the twentieth century, it tells the story of Nick, an old-style revolutionary lefty who was jailed in 1984 for the attempted murder of a businessman. Finally released in 1999, Nick returns to a Britain that's got the Tories out of power while he was away. However, things have changed dramatically all over, and he's finding it difficult to adjust.
Max Stafford-Clark's slick, crowd-pleasing production of this several years ago was a delight, and it's interesting to compare this much smaller-scale version with it. The play itself is still a clever piece of work, cunningly balancing the personal and the political as it uses Nick to show the radical changes in British society between 1984 and 1999. But this production is a lot less relaxed - for reasons best known to Growling Monkey, they've chosen to perform a 90 minute play in 65, and every possible opportunity to have pairs of lines overlap is taken. It makes the plot tear along like a juggernaut, but doesn't really leave much time for character nuance. And though all the actors perform well, a lot of them seem terribly young to be talking about their revolutionary past fifteen years ago. Those minor quibbles aside, it's a great piece of writing imaginatively staged in a tiny space.
More simian-related entertainment follows with The Monkey Butlers' sketch show. And apropos of yesterday's Michael Franti query, a related one; what kind of BASTARDS schedule a Fringe comedy show to start at 3.30pm, and then start it exactly at 3.30pm? By the time we've finished a quick pre-show wee, they've already started, and we have to wait outside the auditorium door for eight minutes for a suitable break in the performance before we can go in. Which is particularly worrying at the Underbelly, when you're stuck in the corridor between two venues, and the one next door to the one you're waiting to enter is audibly having much more fun. Happily, once we get inside, it turns out to be worth the wait. Sketch shows at Edinburgh are, of course, tarnished by the memory of endless bad Oxbridge graduates trying to emulate their more famous predecessors and failing. Hal Cruttenden, Zoe Lyons, Caimh McDonnell (as seen at Mervyn Stutter yesterday) and Paddy Lennox don't do anything radical or unusual with the sketch show format, but they remember to put in plenty of jokes, and that's rarer than you may think in this town at this time of year. They even manage to throw in a reference to the ubiquity of Monty Python sketches without embarrassing themselves, which takes some doing.
On the road between Underbelly and C Electric, things start to happen. There's a phone call from FilmFan, our journo chum who's currently in town covering the Film Festival (and theoretically blogging as he goes, though at the time of writing he appears not to have updated it since last Friday). He's managed to come up with one press ticket for the Whedon interview tomorrow, and is graciously offering it to us. We gratefully accept, and obviously The BBG gets first dibs on it. It puts us in a good mood for Gamarjobat - A Shut Up Comedy From Japan, the double act we also saw at Stutter yesterday. My concern then was that they couldn't keep up that level of energy for an hour; thankfully, they don't even try. After fifteen minutes of the two-men-in-suits-running-around material, the rest of the show is dedicated to a lengthy narrative about a failed boxer and his attempt to get back into the game again. It's the duo's use of movie cliches that makes this work so well - not just the hackneyed story conventions, but also visual devices like training montages and freeze-frames, all expertly recreated on stage with the minimum of props and the sort of audience participation that makes you wish they'd picked you.
At this point, it's time for The BBG to head off to the cinema again to see just how many hundred people are queueing for Serenity returns. I take this opportunity to see the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players, because she doesn't like them very much. They admit up front that they're basically a one joke band - mum Tina picks up other people's slide collections from junk shops, dad Jason writes pop songs inspired by the images, and eleven-year-old Rachel accompanies them on drums. When I saw them last year it was fairly entertaining, but the joke appears to be running out of steam now - the older numbers were obviously inspired by the random images in an individual slide collection, whereas the newer stuff is mixed and matched from multiple collections to make the songs work. Still, there's some self-deprecating charm in the mid-show Q&A, where Tina responds to a query about family arguments during rehearsals with "luckily, we don't rehearse, so that's okay."
On the road between the Pleasance and Cineworld, I get another phone call; this time from The BBG. While standing around the cinema waiting for things to happen, she's been chatting to a Whedon fan from Glasgow called Cath, who's got a spare ticket for tomorrow's interview and has actually given it away to The BBG for nothing. So it looks like both of us will be there at the event after all. Having made the call, The BBG takes her place at the back of the returns queue at 8.50pm, and a few minutes later I join her there, not knowing just how many thousand people will be fighting over the last few tickets for the hottest event of the Film Festival this year.
There are five people in front of us.
So though my original plan is just to cheer on The Belated Birthday Girl as she makes a last desperate attempt to see the world premiere of Serenity, I end up seeing it with her instead, and only paying face value for the ticket despite just walking in off the street forty minutes before the film. Which must be a pisser for the fans who've apparently been paying three-figure sums on eBay for those tickets. And make no mistake, this is a fan screening; the queue of people waiting to get in half an hour beforehand is enormous, and the screams outside as - let's be frank here - some unknown telly actors and a director arrive at the red carpet are terrifying to hear.
As for the film itself, it's got a difficult job to do. On the one hand, it's got to follow on from the original dozen or so episodes of the Firefly TV show, developing the plotlines that were truncated by its cancellation; on the other hand, it's got to be sufficiently self-contained to attact Joe Multiplex who's never even heard of the show. The film's approach is to fill in more of the back story of River (Summer Glau), a young girl with extrordinary powers who's on the run from the government. As in the show, she and her brother are hiding out on the starship Serenity, captained by the renegade Mal (Nathan Fillion) and his trusty crew. But there's a mysterious character known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) on their tail.
For my money, I don't think the film quite works as a standalone entity - Whedon makes a gallant attempt at filling in backstory, but has to leave out a little too much for non-Firefly fans to be able to follow it. The fans, on the other hand, will have an absolute blast. All the things we associate with Whedon - his sure sense of narrative, his handling of a large ensemble cast, his jokes, his ability to make a story turn emotionally on a sixpence - are all there, just much much bigger and with Dolby sound. It's obvious from the anarchic Q&A afterwards, where Whedon and most of the cast are forced to sing and dance for the audience's amusement, that this is a labour of love for everyone involved - it's a story they wanted to tell, and through sheer force of will they've finally been able to tell it. That can only be a good thing, can't it? Well, I'm sure The BBG agrees, and you'll probably find a review further down the page without a single negative reference to prove it.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Lee - Julie McKee has a fabulous voice. I can't understand why the place wasn't packed to the rafters. She mixes classic soul and jazz with a few songs off the beaten track. A must see. www.juliemckee.com
Nick - Cabaret singer Barb Jungr verged on the pretentious at times. Love Me Tender charts her formative experiences of listening to Elvis on a tinny radio in the back of her parents' car, crossing the Pennines en route to Blackpool. A deeply personal journey results in an unusual collection of songs in tribute to Elvis, and more unusually given very jangly arrangements on the piano. The results were mixed, but Barb is a great stylist and chatted very engagingly about her life and love of Elvis.
Lee - Marc shaves off his Moustache and is surprised when his wife doesn't comment. She says he's never had one. He asks her to cancel dinner with his parents. She says his father died a year ago. Is Marc going mad? Is his wife trying to turn him mad? If you enjoy trying to work out what is going on with only the slimmest of clues, you might find this film as intriguing as I did.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Serenity was a film which came laden with expectation [you don't say - Spank], but for me Joss and his film exceeded those very high expectations. Everything I had hoped for was there - Joss' humour, emotion and ability to astonish were all there. And I felt he'd done a very good job at striking the balance with how to introduce the characters and story to an audience who have never seen Firefly, while not labouring it for those who have. But there was also much more there, in the beauty of some of the shots, and the style and techniques used, which raised it even higher than I'd hoped in the early part of the film, and the depth and breadth of emotion in the latter part was stunning. Joss always has the ability to make his audience laugh, then cry, feel elated, and shocked, all in rapid succession. I never doubted that if Joss got to make his film, it would do all those things. He did; it did. A real coup for the Edinburgh Film Festival to get to screen the official World Premiere, with Joss and cast in attendance, and an event I am so glad not to have missed.
Lee - Billed as an extraordinary craftsman of the blues/jazz guitar, Adrian Byron Burns does exactly what it says on the label. Citing musical influences as diverse as Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, Adrian plays unique versions of his heroes' songs with virtuoso style.
Lee - While it doesn't quite live up to the promise of its opening song, I Am Star Trek is an enjoyable romp through the origins of the cult show. The play focusses on Gene Roddenbury's struggles to get the show on TV and the ideals that made Star Trek and its various spinoffs the most successful TV shows ever made.
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