Seeing films in Edinburgh in August used to be a thrill: you would also pick up the buzz of the city's other cultural events, whether it was a play staged in a car or the latest coming of The Lady Boys of Bangkok.
For the second year, the Edinburgh International Film Festival occupies a stand-alone June slot, and it's hard to get used to things being so much quieter – especially with the eerie Scandinavian-style white nights.
These days, Edinburgh feels like a solid film festival rather than an unmissable cultural landmark – although there were sidebar events to bolster the basic diet. Notably, there was a live All Tomorrow's Parties music event (which I'm kicking myself for missing) and the Paradise Movie Hall, a church decked out Bengali-style in which you could watch masterpieces by Satyajit Ray and others in a fragrant atmosphere of incense and paintings.
Edinburgh has always been a stamping ground for Brit DIY maestro Shane Meadows: he was back with his prankish new feature Le Donk & Scor-Zay-Zee. Paddy Considine plays Le Donk, a goon-ish music biz hustler who tries to wangle a blubbery, diffident rapper into a support slot with Arctic Monkeys. Throwaway fun, the film was shot in five days, with Considine, "Scorz" and cast improvising for all they're worth and occasionally causing director Meadows (also on screen) to corpse helplessly. The rough-and-ready mock-doc format is familiar stuff, and Considine's creation is essentially a sort of backstage David Brent, but the film is thoroughly likeable, and Scor-Zay-Zee's rapping even proves inspired. Le Donk's chant of "Calm down Deirdre Barlow! Calm down Stephen Hawking!" could catch on, too.
Without doubt, the fest's absolute show-stopper turned out to be not a film but a TV series: In Treatment, one of two US efforts showcased (the other being Alan Ball's True Blood). In Treatment features Gabriel Byrne as a psychotherapist, and follows an inspired format: five 30-minute episodes a week, four featuring different patients, the fifth showing the hero's own session with his mentor (Dianne Wiest). Chamber drama at its tightest, the HBO series – masterminded by Rodrigo Garcia – is brilliant because it puts you in the therapist's place, making you acutely aware of every nuance in both script and acting. Byrne is mesmerising, reserved in four episodes before changing his register radically in the fifth, and a superb supporting cast includes Embeth Davidtz and young up-and-comer Mia Wasikowska. This is TV drama at its most literate, and it would be a scandal if it didn't reach UK screens soon.
Indeed, sophistication was a watchword for much of the US stuff on show – including, I'll grudgingly admit, Sam Mendes's opening-night film Away We Go, a road comedy about a young couple (Maya Rudolph, John Krasinski) in search of the perfect home. The acting's good, it's beautifully presented, and the script – by literary golden couple Vendela Vida and Dave Eggers – is crisp. But there's a stifling air of New Yorker smugness about the whole thing.
Similarly, some people found there was an oppressive airlessness to Stephen Soderbergh's new feature The Girlfriend Experience – but that was rather the point. In Soderbergh's unashamedly experimental vein, this is a fragmented drama about a New York prostitute who offers emotional intimacy as part of the very expensive package. An anatomy of luxury against a background of economic collapse, this vista of sleek condos and blue-chip brasseries could be read as superficial and glitz-obsessed. In fact, the film uses sleekness much as Bret Easton Ellis does in his novels, and its social critique is of the moment: this is perhaps the first explicitly Obama-age movie. Porn star Sasha Grey coolly transcends scandal value, her vulnerably chic blankness making for a contemporary equivalent of that Weimar-era goddess Lulu.
More enigmatic US chic came from dark thriller The Missing Person, with Michael Shannon, from Revolutionary Road, as a damaged private dick trailing a mystery man. Noah Buschel has created perhaps the wooziest essay in meta-noir since Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, although Shannon's frazzled lummox act is dangerously close to becoming mere shtick. But it's a beguiling, eerie film, and perhaps the only gumshoe thriller ever to showcase Stravinsky and Ravel on the soundtrack.
But nothing was quite as chic and chilly as the subject of The September Issue, R J Cutler's documentary about Vogue and its reigning ice queen Anna Wintour. The film doesn't need to do much editorialising to reveal the fashion world as a cruel, ludicrous place: never mind Brüno, this is a world in which people unironically declare "Jacket is the new coat" and bemoan "a famine of beauty". While Wintour will freeze your blood as expected, you'll also find yourself warming to her No 2, long-suffering creative director Grace Coddington, a dry English wit who more than once rolls her eyes in agony as £50,000 worth of photo shoot gets spiked on a whim. Entertaining and horrifying in equal measure.
As for the patchy British content, it was primarily a matter of the cheap, if not always the cheerful. Two low-budget Liverpool features stood out. One was Kicks, Lindy Heymann's timely piece about two aspiring WAGs (Kerrie Hayes, Nichola Burley) who kidnap their beloved footballer: a My Summer of Love for the E4 crowd.
The other was Salvage, an economical scarer about an outbreak of something grisly breaking out on a suburban estate. Imagine a ketchup-soaked Night of the Living Dead filmed (seriously!) on the former Brookside estate .... As Le Donk might put it, "Calm down George Romero! Calm down Billy Corkhill!".
For The Best of the Fest today go to: edfilmfest.org.uk
Also showing: 28/06/2009
Year One (97 mins, (12A)
Jack Black and Michael Cera bumble through the Old Testament. Like Life of Brian, it's essentially a series of biblical sketches, but unlike Life of Brian there's no satirical angle, nor much of a story to link the sporadically funny gags.
Tenderness One (100 mins, 15)
A teenage killer goes on a road trip, pursued by Russell Crowe's melancholy cop. Middling indie drama.
Rudo & Cursi (102 mins, 15)
Comic romp about two bone-headed half-brothers, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, becoming footballers in Mexico City.
Lake Tahoe (85 mins, (12A)
Sleepy independent comedy in which an expressionless teenager slopes around a deserted Mexican town, trying to find someone to repair his car. Not for the impatient.
Shirin (90 mins, PG)
Abbas Kiarostami's latest project consists of nothing but close-ups of Iranian women's faces as they watch a film in a darkened cinema.
The Last Thakur (80 mins, 15)
Drama set in Bangladesh, where a mysterious armed man intervenes in a local feud. Tense, promising debut for director Sadik Ahmed.