The Imposter (2012)

Texas, 1994; blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nicholas Barclay is told by his brother to walk home one night so as not to wake their mother, who works nights. He is never seen or heard from again. Spain, 1997; a boy claiming to be the missing Texan is found alone in a phone box by the side of the road, where he tells authorities that he has just escaped from his abusive captors. As the boy’s family welcome him home with open arms, sceptics Nancy Fisher, an FBI agent, and Charlie Parker, a private investigator, dig deeper into the initial disappearance to discover that Nicholas — who is now brown-eyed, darked-haired and speaks with a French accent — is in fact someone else entirely.

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Brave (2012)

Having been gifted with a bow by her father on the very same day that he lost his leg to the demon bear Mor’du, Merida (Kelly Macdonald) has grown up to be a free-spirited and untraditional princess in the King’s image, much to her more conventional mother’s (Emma Thompson) chagrin. When it is announced that she is to be betrothed to one of the allied clans – either Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) or MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd) – she breaks with tradition in order to fight for her own hand in marriage, and her own freedom as a result. Resorting to magic in the hope of settling all differences with her unyielding mother, however, she is soon forced to grow up and see the world from an adult’s perspective.

Considering just how much publicity Brave has generated – about its directorial reshuffle, Caledonian setting and use of a female protagonist (a first for Pixar) – it is surprising just how little we actually know about the plot going in. All of the promotional material released focuses on the same jokes, spectacular CGI scenery and a slightly new edit of Merida’s angsty narration. It’s no wonder that many were beginning to have doubts. Did Pixar’s Brave really have nothing else to offer?

Thankfully, Brave is no disappointment, the film previously titled The Bear and the Bow duly delivering on both with some pulse-pounding action expertly complimenting the side-splitting cultural humour and well-handled mother-daughter relationship. The animation is amongst the best we’ve ever seen, Merida’s unruly red hair and penchant for daredevilry impressing equally as the studio once again strikes the perfect balance between spirit and spectacle.

The real star of Brave, however, is the smart script (co-written by original director Brenda Chapman, replacement director Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi). While Chapman’s story proves engaging enough, the gags and personalities written into the screenplay take it to a whole other level. A product of the writers’ extensive research and naturalistic ad-libbing on behalf of the Scottish cast, Brave’s dialogue is a thing of beauty, only rarely falling back on the usual stock idioms as the creative team instead looks to loot the local dialect for even funnier phrasings.

Of the star-studded cast, Macdonald is absolutely wonderful in the lead role – the first teenage character she has played since Diane in 1996’s Trainspotting, proving at once strong-willed and sympathetic, while McKidd’s decision to base Young MacGuffin’s gibberish accent on his native Doric adds charm and authenticity to a character that could otherwise have been very one-note. Ferguson and Thompson also delight as Lord Macintosh and mother respectively, even if their voice-work is not quite as distinctive, while Julie Walters milks a cameo as the film’s witch for all it is worth. Nobody is master of the Scottish accent quite like Connoly, however, and he duly steals the show as the one-legged King Fergus.

Brave isn’t perfect, however, and suffers in comparison to rival DreamWorks’ own Celtic offering, How To Train Your Dragon. While consistently funny, thoroughly entertaining and utterly gorgeous to look at, the film isn’t as big a step forward for Pixar as previously suggested, The story just isn’t tight enough by the company’s usual standard, with a number of characters falling sadly by the wayside and the final act struggling to work the numerous threads into a genuinely satisfying climax. Worst of all, Patrick Doyle’s original score – a rousing smorgasboard of Scottish sounds – is periodically interrupted by jarringly artificial folk music, interrupting the film’s natural pace and rhythm.

These issues are far from disastrous, however, and for the most part Brave is a handsomely shot, enthusiastically voiced and welcomingly well-researched take on a nation’s ancient myths and legends. Whatever precedents Chapman and Andrews’ film might set for the studio, the themes of maternal misunderstanding and adolescent maturity that form Brave‘s core are strong enough in their own right to carry the film, with the usual outlandish characters keeping the jokes coming thick and fast. Just don’t let your expectations be coloured by the disappointingly substandard short – La Luna – which precedes it.

Guinea Pigs (2012)

Arriving at a secluded ProSyntrex facility situated deep in the English countryside, seven strangers are carefully briefed on the nature of a drug trial they have each agreed to participate in: a routine, double-blind experiment run by Dr. Mansell (Chris Larkin) that aims to study the effects of Pro-9 on human subjects. As Adam (Aneurin Barnard), Joni (Alex Reid), Jed (Oliver Coleman), Katie (Nia Roberts), Morty (Steve Evets), Carmen (Skye Lourie) and Arif (Amit Shah) receive their first round of injections, however, they soon find themselves reacting to the drug in unexpected and drastic ways. Trapped, alone and slaves to the chemicals now coursing through their veins, the guinea pigs might not survive the night, let alone the study’s fortnight-long duration.

In festivals often packed to the highest brows with pretence, pedigree and Philippine New Wave, sometimes it’s nice to kick back with a schlocky British horror movie aiming to do little more than entertain. An assured début from award-winning shorts director Ian Clark, Guinea Pigs is one of the most engaging and enjoyable movies screened at Edinburgh 2012 so far.

Opening with the participants’ arrival at the remote compound, Clark quickly and efficiently introduces his characters by way of their first appointment with Dr. Mansell. In a scene reminiscent of an early Big Brother première – back when the housemates still resembled actual human beings – the characters unpack, unwind and inadvertently lay the groundwork for the numerous conflicts and character arcs that will develop across the rest of their tenure, or indeed the film’s pithy 85 minute running time. Whereas most genre efforts would take this opportunity to let the first head roll, Guinea Pigs instead takes its time, establishing a realistic, recognisable environment that in turn builds a false sense of security.

Populating Clark’s obviously researched and impeccably designed laboratory are characters that are equally relatable and similarly well-observed. Misfits‘ Alex Reid is – as always – a pleasure as self-confessed “farmer’s daughter” Jodi, contributing a nuanced and wonderfully sympathetic performance that gives viewers someone to root for right from the off, while Aneurin Bernard does well as the film’s post-graduate lead Adam, providing an entry point into the narrative and a sense of reason once things eventually come to a head. Nia Roberts and Steve Evets also impress, meanwhile, infusing personality and depth into their roles as driven journalist Katie and experienced test subject Morty, respectively.

Effectively a body horror, playing on the primal fears of medicine and sickness, Clark expertly ramps up tension with a series of tight close-ups and measured, lingering cuts that hint at an ever-present spectre that seems always to be lurking just around the corner. Even as night falls and the blood finally starts to flow, however, the director keeps a tight hold of his characters, using each development or individual trauma to reveal something new about our makeshift ensemble of Katie-dubbed last resorters. With chilling sound-effects and suggestive cinematography keeping audiences on the very edge of their seats, the script is able to touch on topics such as ethics and human rights without ever detracting from the overall atmosphere of suspense.

Where Guinea Pigs ultimately falls down is in its disappointingly lacklustre finale. After a confident and effective build up, Clark can’t seem to bring his various plot strands together in a satisfying manner, exiling one character in particular and robbing many others of a fitting farewell. Worse, the foundations for a memorable conclusion are clearly there, evident between the lines but sadly under-represented in the script itself. Where a last-minute reveal should have provided a devastating and gut-wrenching climax, the ramifications of the subjects’ movie-long plight are instead skimmed over with a few pre-credit title cards that don’t provide the satisfaction that the audience or the characters really deserve.

With its simple premise, strong script and stronger cast, Guinea Pigs could have been something truly special. As it is, the film is let down by a weak finale that detracts from the overall experience, causing more frustration than fulfilment. Even with its failings, however, Guinea Pigs is still personally my favourite film of the festival so far, encouraging me to watch Clark’s career with interest and the highest expectations. I recommend that you do too.

I attended this year’s EIFF on behalf of HeyUGuys. My full coverage can be found here.

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