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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

San Sebastian/Donostia Roundup

Sorry for the delayed update but I hit the ground running straight after landing and haven't had a moment free since. Enough excuses. I attended this year's edition of the San Sebastian Film Festival (or Donostia Zinemaldia in Basque) for its 59th edition, as a guest of the CinemaLab programme, which seeks to create better links between European exhibitors and distributors and Latin American films.

It was my first time at this Festival but not my first in San Sebastian, a city not too far from Bilbao, where my father is from and where I attended University many moons ago - essentially I am half Basque.

I was only in town for 3 nights, and had two meetings to attend, so the filmgoing was sparse. But I did get in six films altogether. Four of those were titles from Cinema en Construccion, the movies-in-progress strand of the festival which focuses on Latino films. The quality was high, and I saw real gems. But it's not fair to review unfinished films. The two others were competition features, and both were excellent.

RAMPART, starring Woody Harrelson in an Oscar-worthy performance, is about a corrupt police officer in the infamous Rampart district headquarters of Los Angeles, home to a lot of the evidence-planting, police brutality and other naughty stuff the LAPD was up to. Harrelson, a terrific performer who has been underrated and underused in the past, takes what is a fairly generically-filmed movie and turns it into an epic character study that is complex, funny and terrifying all at once. This will get Awards buzz.

LE SKYLAB is the third feature from actress (and now director) Julie Delpy, best known for BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET. A hilarious French family comedy like only the French could produce, it's sprawling, with over 20 speaking parts, all of them performing at top notch level. I saw this in the Teatro Victoria Eugenia, a Belle Epoque palace turned into a cinema for the night, with a 4K projector beaming crisp-clean images onto a giant screen. A fantastic film and an amazing screening experience.

San Sebastian is one of my favorite film festivals (I've been to six this year) because it doesn't have a huge amount of corporate sponsorship, it's situated in an amazing city by the sea, all the venues are within walking distance of each other, and as a class A fest is has access to top notch competition features and juries. Just popping into bars in the Old Town I ran into Catherine Deneuve, Michael Fassbender and Rita Wilson (?!).

This is the end of my Festival tour for the year - it started with the Berlinale in February, and took me to Toulouse in March, Pula/Sarajevo in July, Venice in August and finishing in San Sebastian last week. Now on to focus to my own Festival, the Cinecity Brighton Film Festival, starting 17 Nov!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Venice, Day 5

No matter how much I plan, I always end up on a sleep deficit in Venice. Maybe it's the heat or the screening schedule, but I am struggling to stay awake, particularly when the films are not great.

The surprise film this year was PEOPLE MOUNTAIN PEOPLE SEA, a Chinese feature from Cai Shangjun, a dark and nihilistic violent thriller which is not the usual fare you get from China in the festival circuit. The false fire alarm which interrupted the screening provided some well needed relief from the bleakness. I'm still not sure what I think of the film, but it was certainly very well made.

Francesco convinced me to attend the homage to Armenian documentary filmmaker ARTAVAZD PELESJAN, which included two of his shorts (SEASONS and LIFE) and a documentary about him from an Italian filmmaker, THE SILENCE OF PELESJAN. The original shorts were beautiful, the tribute doc at the end less so. It certainly made me want to seek out his other work.

Gianni Mina is an acclaimed journalist who has traveled to Cuba over the last 30 years, and he has a clear love and affection for the island and the revolution, as I do. So I went into CUBA IN THE AGE OF OBAMA, PART 1 with high expectations. Unfortunately, like the Jonathan Demme doc, the filmmaker let its subject down, with poor camera work, lazy journalism and cloying use of music. A missed opportunity.

Following the international success of THE BAND'S VISIT, Eran Kolirin delivers a boring film about boredom - THE EXCHANGE. Following a university professor as he engages in bizarre behavior with a neighbor, this has moments of humour and originality but ultimately is a short film blown up to feature length.

The buzz on the lido has died off significantly, with screenings half empty and fewer people around in general. You can actually find a seat on a vaporetto! I guess this is the Toronto exodus that happens every year. Perhaps someone needs to reschedule?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Venice, Day 4

In 2009, I saw Todd Solondz’s LIFE DURING WARTIME in Venice and it was my favorite thing that year. So I was understandably excited to see his latest film, DARK HORSE, in competition. It starts off in pure Solondz style, with biting satire of the blandness and crassness of America mixed with genuine affection for the damaged souls he portrays, but ultimately runs out of steam in the second half and becomes almost sentimental in its final minutes, a first for this director. Unlike most of his other films, this one follows only one story as opposed to an ensemble cast of fuck-ups, which perhaps explains the disappointing second half.

Swedish drama PLAY was a gamble, a film we decided to see because of a gap in the schedule. Not knowing anything, we encountered a stylish, formalist piece (the whole film consists of probably no more than 40 static shots) about bullying and petty criminal activity amongst children in Gottenberg, Sweden. It was genuine, tense and thought provoking, but ultimately unsatisfying, as it never seemed to go anywhere.

This highly anticipated film is yet another where I know, as with SHAME, I’ll be at odds with both audiences and critics: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY was an efficient, well acted, tight spy thriller whose existence is caused only by a cynical opportunity to exploit an existing literary property. There is no need for this movie and frankly, I was bored by it. Perhaps I am prejudiced as I have never been a fan of the story to begin with – I find Smiley dull (I know that’s the point) and I never found the tale compelling.

Jonathan Demme does a great disservice to what could have been a heartbreaking masterpiece in I’M CAROLYN PARKER, a documentary about the titular character, a black woman living in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. Her story is the story of thousands of black families who lost their homes and were scattered across the country – but Carolyn stayed behind and slowly rebuilt her home. She is dynamic and funny, but Demme’s shaky, amateur camera and wedding video style techniques betray his lack of effort. Shame.

Andrea Arnold’s version of WUTHERING HEIGHTS couldn’t be more dissimilar: a big, towering masterpiece that should be the template for all English period pieces: unconventional, bold, innovative, brave – and above all, moving. The film reminded me a lot of Malick’s THE NEW WORLD in the way that the love story is intertwined with the natural landscape, and the lack of score is filled by the sounds of the moors – the howling winds, the pouring rain, the dogs and the crickets. This is exactly the kick up the ass a classic like this needs – a necessary, fresh approach. One of my favorite films of the year.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Venice Days 1,2 & 3

My third Mostra in a row, and finally I have some time to watch films. For the past two years I have attended Venice in official capacity as part of the CICAE Art Cinema Management course, and this time, I rocked up just for the movies. Here's a round-up of what I have seen so far:

ALPS is the follow up from DOGTOOTH director Yorgos Lathimos, and follows the same twisted logic of that first film, but fails to bottle the same tension the second time around.

David Cronenberg’s A DANGEROUS METHOD is a very un-Cronenberg-like film in its execution, an elegant period piece with a sharp script by Christopher Hampton. Its themes, though, are thoroughly in the vein of the Canadian filmmakers’ oeuvre: sex, violence and psychology. It was enjoyable despite some heavy handed acting from Keira Knightley, complete with dodgy Russian accent.

PERSEPOLIS was one of the most entertaining films of 2009, so I was looking forward to Strapjani’s follow up, CHICKEN WITH PLUMS, a foray into live action with one of the most talented actors around, Matthew Almaric. It was a huge disappointment – sentimental, clich├ęd and very much attempting to pull off a Jeneut-sense of wonder without the skills to do so.

Al Pacino is this year’s recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, and he’s brought a film with him: WILD SALOME, an essay-film very much like his directorial debut, LOOKING FOR RICHARD, in which the actor explores the process of putting on Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. It was self-indulgent and had true moments of Spinal Tap-ness about it, but Pacino still has an electric face and voice.

Fassbender is everywhere. Within 24 hours of his turn as Carl Jung, he shows up here in Steve McQueen’s follow up to HUNGER, as an executive with a predilection for prostitutes and porn. SHAME suffers in comparison to HUNGER because of its almost purposefully low-stakes plot, and Carey Mulligan is miscast as his troubled sister. There are a few moments of humour and originality, but overall its just too lightweight and familiar ground.

My favorite film so far has been Emmanuelle Crialese’s TERRAFERMA (pictured), a gentle and straightforward story about a Sicilian island and the struggles of its inhabitants in the age of tourism, dwindling fishing stocks and increasing African immigration. The characters were funny, interesting and real, and the director of THE GOLDEN DOOR has a sharp eye and ear for the Sicilian people and landscape.

Watch this space for more reviews throughout the week.