EIFF 2013: Mister John, Hawking and Shooting Bigfoot
Posted on Wednesday July 3, 2013, 12:37 by Stephen Carty in Edinburgh International Film Festival
While many critics were disappointed that this year’s Surprise Movie wasn’t Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, anyone in the market for an immersive, Eastern-set drama concerning brotherly death need only look as far as Mister John, which is one of the festival’s best films thus far. An existential study of grief and identity, Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s minimalistic second feature revolves around the haunted figure of Gerry Devine (Aidan Gillen), who travels to Singapore after finding out that his brother, John, has been found face-down in a murky lake. Using this as a chance to escape his troubled marriage, Gerry arrives to help settle the family estate and take care of John’s business, but soon finds himself slipping comfortably into his deceased brother’s enticing way of life. Staying with John’s alluring widow, Kim (Zoe Tay), Gerry is tempted to turn his short-term trip into a permanent relocation…
More of a lingering mood piece than a traditional narrative film, Mister John has an abstract quality that makes it tough to get a firm grasp on. Importantly, it’s not nearly as experimental – or impenetrable – as something you might expect from the likes of Terrence Malick, David Lynch or the aforementioned Winding Refn, but many viewers will find the semi-impressionistic approach too inconclusive, regardless. That said, with Gerry suffering from an overpowering cocktail of jetlag, grief and the after-effects of a snakebite, the film’s hallucinatory quality serves to capture its protagonist’s hazy state of mind, while the atmospheric, mesmerising drama is amped up by Stephen McKeon’s powerful, Michael Giacchino-like score. Considering that many scenes are largely wordless, it’s Aidan Gillen who deserves the lion’s share of the credit, though, with the Game Of Thrones star managing to convey roughly seventeen different shades of internal anguish with pained facial expressions alone.
Speaking of pained facial expressions, there were a few of these in evidence after a screening of The Sea, which didn’t go down well with the critics here at all. While reflective and impressively crafted, Stephen Brown’s appropriately sombre adaptation of John Banville’s Booker Prize-winning novel is perhaps a little too dreary and subdued for its own good, despite some predictably excellent work from the always-reliable Ciaran Hinds in the lead role. Providing a sense of emotion and depth that the movie doesn’t always deserve, Hinds stars as boozy Irish art historian Max Morden, who’s just lost his wife and subsequently retreats to the seaside town where he spent a seminal summer as a youngster. Flashing backwards and forwards between time periods, it’s elegantly made and beautifully shot, but Brown never commits to any of the themes he touches on (adolescence, sexual curiosity, class divides), and you can tell where the plot is heading a mile off. Rufus Sewell is fun as the rakish father of an upper class family Max played with as a child, although it could be argued that his energetic madcap turn is somewhat at odds with the suitably mournful tone of the washed-out, present-day scenes.
Documentaries, like shots of the ocean in Brown’s aforesaid drama, haven’t been in short supply at this year’s festival, but a few intriguing prospects marked themselves out as ones to watch. The first of these was Stephen Finnigan’s Hawking, an appealing bio-doc which pays celebratory tribute to the world’s most famous and beloved physicist. Cataloguing the Oxford-born cosmologist’s life in linear fashion, Finnigan employs effective re-enactments and talking heads from Hawking’s nearest-and-dearest (including his carers, ex-wife, and former students), taking us from childhood all the way to the present day.
As mentioned, it’s more of a celebration of the man than anything else, although given the unthinkable obstacles he’s had to overcome in his life you can absolutely understand why. Narrated and co-written by Hawking himself, we see his dry sense of humour in action and learn that he didn’t work particularly hard at university (studying for an hour a day on average), but most of the time Finnigan’s film merely reinforces what we already know about him rather than offering fresh insight. As such, the 71-year-old universe-expander remains a somewhat elusive figure, which can possibly be explained by the fact he expresses concern that his public profile is as much down to his disability as his academic stature. Still, he’s a hugely inspirational human being, and the only physicist – to my mind – who has managed to play themselves on both The Simpsons and Stark Trek.
The second prospect worth noting was Morgan Matthews’ Shooting Bigfoot, a disarmingly funny documentary that sees its director saddle up with a few sasquatch-hunting groups who have dedicated their lives to finding proof of the mysterious creature’s existence. Splitting his time three ways, Matthews joins forces with Dallas and Wayne, a pair of bickering, good ol’ boy rednecks who rely on patented mating calls; Tom Biscardi, a ‘famous’ Bigfoot hunter who employs amiable former Navy Seals to help him on his quest; and Rick Dyer, an edgy, trigger-happy con-man who was involved in an infamous hoax a few years back that incriminated Biscardi….
All three threads are entertaining and amusing, but it’s Biscardi who steals the show. Responsible for all the best lines (“You ask him for the time and he makes you a damn watch!”), he’s a walking quote-machine and exactly the sort of character you should build a documentary around, while the sequence where he repeatedly names an interviewee who wishes to remain anonymous steals the show. Ultimately, though, it’s the Dyer-focussed finale that emerges as the real talking point, as the film suddenly swerves into a surprisingly tense, Blair Witch-like climax that will leave you questioning whether the whole thing was staged or not. Was Matthews duping the hunters? Or were they duping him? Regardless of the answer, this is definitely worth tracking down.