Sunday, 11 November 2018

TIFF: King of the castle

Well, we've reached the end of the 59th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, and all that's left is to hand out the awards, watch the closing film and have a party! As part of the Fipresci jury, we were asked to watch 27 films and award two international critics' prizes - one for a competition film and one for a first-time Greek filmmaker. Our deliberations weren't too tough this time, and we have our winners, so today we can enjoy the return of the sunshine as we get ready for tonight. I certainly have no intention of going near a cinema until this evening. Prize winners will appear on the website's festival page, as will my best of the fest. And here are a few final films...

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
dir-scr Ben Wheatley; with Neil Maskell; Sam Riley 18/UK ****
Beautifully observed and played, this often excruciating British drama mines a family reunion for maximum pain. But with each squirm-inducing scene, filmmaker Ben Wheatley and his gifted improvisational cast find the humanity in these flawed people and strained relationships. In other words, even if the film ultimately feels a bit slight, it's impossible to watch without seeing ourselves up there on-screen.

dir Elsa Amiel; scr Elsa Amiel, Laurent Lariviere; with Julia Fory, Peter Mullan 18/Fr ***.
There's a great movie in here, although filmmaker Elsa Amiel resists committing to a perspective, which leaves the narrative feeling constantly distracted by subplots and side characters. A few intensely powerful scenes hint at a striking drama about a bodybuilder who reluctantly unbottles her maternal instincts. But some timid, awkward direction and an out-of-balance cast leaves the audience on the outside looking in. Even so, it's brittly moving.

dir-scr Mia Hansen-Love; with Roman Kolinka, Aarshi Banerjee 18/Fr ***
There's a loose honesty to this film that makes it easy to watch, even if writer-director Mia Hansen-Love never quite manages to sell the story. Springing from a powerfully topical premise, the film instead takes an extended sideroad that stubbornly refuses to get back on track. This means that the central romance involving the title character feels both incidental and unconvincing. And the deeper issue of post-traumatic stress remains essentially unexplored. Even so, it looks seriously lovely.

dir-scr Sudabeh Mortezai; with Anwulika Alphonsus, Mariam Sanusi 18/Aut ***.
There's a documentary urgency to this drama that makes it feel bracingly authentic. In tracing the journey of a young woman who enters a pact to be trafficked from Nigeria to Austria, filmmaker Sudabeh Mortezai avoids any hint of a cautionary message: she simply follows the events with clear-eyed empathy. The narrative wobbles a bit in the third act, but what the film has to say is seriously important and darkly moving.

Obscuro Barroco
dir Evangelia Kranioti; with Luana Muniz 18/Br ****
Pulsing with rhythmic energy, this brief documentary is a dream-like trip into the life of the iconic late Brazilian trans performer Luana Muniz, who provides a poetic voiceover. Greek filmmaker Evangelia Kranioti gorgeously captures Rio's people and places through Muniz's eyes, including strikingly evocative footage of the annual Carnival festivities. The words and images offer a visceral exploration of the city's notorious nightlife. And the film is also a remarkable depiction of how each of us must transform ourselves to become who we truly are.

dir Electra Angeletopoulou, Natalia Lampropoulou; scr Sotiris Petridis; with Konstantinos Liaros, Matina Koulourioti 18/Gr ***
An inventive revamp of Hitchcock's classic Rear Window, this Greek thriller uses webcam hacking as the mode of voyeurism for a young man housebound with a respiratory infection. It's a clever idea, and the film has a bright young cast who make it engaging enough to stick with it. Even so, the filmmakers never take the time to develop the characters. This means that the audience is unable to become complicit with them, so we aren't sucked into the suspense of the situation. Nor can we properly feel the wallop of what happens. Still, it's visually involving and has some superb twists and turns along the way. Plus of course nods to a range of vintage horror movies.

Free Subject
dir-scr Stella Theodoraki; with Theodora Tzimou, Dimitris Kitsos 18/Gr ***
An ambitious, epic-length exploration of artistic expression, this Greek drama centres on a classroom of students given free reign in an art project. Their work is woven into the narrative itself, a fascinating tapestry of fact, fiction and fantasy that touches provocatively in the places where life and art mingle. And it also explores how important it is to be transgressive and even alienating if an artist hopes to find the truth. The film is far too long, culminating with a lengthy musical number that feels badly indulgent. But it's an intriguing look at the difference between art for intelligent people and sell-out populism.

Sunrise in Kimmeria
dir-scr Simon Farmakas; with Athos Antoniou, Kika Georgiou 18/Cyp ***
This ramshackle Cypriot comedy definitely has its charms, but it's also badly overstuffed with characters and subplots that extend the running time far longer than necessary. The plot is engaging: about a simple, straight-talking farmer who finds a UFO that is actually a downed corporate space probe its American owners are trying haplessly to recover. Everyone must hilariously navigate local politicians, religious leaders, goons and busybodies. The script lightly touches on topical themes, but Simon Farmakas basically sidesteps any of that. So the movie ends up as a bit of silly fun. Tightening up the editing and trimming perhaps half an hour of irrelevant goofiness would have made it even funnier.

The Mountain Tears
dir-scr Stelios Charalampopoulos; with Loukia Katopodi, Spyros Georgopoulos 18/Gr **.
Soulful but lifeless, this Greek historical drama will certainly resonate with audiences in its homeland, but writer-director Stelios Charalampopoulos never finds the broader resonance in the story. An homage to The Odyssey, it centres on a journey that's both physical and mythical, set over the tumultuous first half of the last century. There are several striking moments, but the film's pace is wilfully dull, as very little happens on-screen and the storytelling is so minimalistic that it's imperceptible to non-Greeks.

Friday, 9 November 2018

TIFF: It's all about perspective

The 59th Thessaloniki International Film Festival is winding down to its final weekend, and I've now seen almost all of the 27 candidates for the international critics' (Fipresci) prizes here. Our jury will be meeting tomorrow to pick two winners - one from the competition and one to a first-time Greek filmmaker. I think I've seen more Greek films in this past week than in my entire career before I came here. And beyond the jury candidates, I am also catching up with festival films I've had my eye on as they have done the rounds this year, such as Ondi Timoner's excellent Robert Mapplethorpe biopic, which still doesn't have a distributor anywhere. Here's another update on what I've been watching...

dir-scr Ondi Timoner; with Matt Smith, Marianne Rendon 18/US ****
Writer-director Onti Timoner spent more than a decade getting this biopic made, and her attention to detail shows. This is a strikingly told story, skilfully capturing the style of the period as it recounts the life of iconic photographic artist Robert Mapplethorpe. And Matt Smith gives a strikingly loose, authentic performance as a man who, instead of adapting for the mainstream, brought the fringe right out into the spotlight, finding beauty in every corner of his life.

The Harvesters [Die Stropers]
dir-scr Etienne Kallos; with Brent Vermeulen, Alex van Dyk 18/SA ***.
Evocative but elusive, this South African drama is a remarkable exploration of a subculture that is feeling threatened by societal shifts. It’s also an up-close character study, looking at two strikingly different teens dealing with their identities within a tight family. Filmmaker Etienne Kallos beautifully captures the undercurrents between the people in this strikingly beautiful place. But the implied deeper thoughts and feelings remain stubbornly undefined.

dir Zhou Zhou; scr Chi Yun, Zhou Zhou; with Chi Yun, Zhou Meiyan 18/Chn ***
A tough journey, this Chinese drama follows a young woman who faces a series of difficult setbacks that are made worse by her decisions and reactions. It’s a strikingly naturalistic film, directed with doc-like intensity by filmmaker Zhou Zhou. But the abrasive nature of the title character leaves the film fascinating rather than involving. We root for her, but don’t like her very much.

dir-scr Tonia Mishiali; with Stella Fyrogeni, Andreas Vasiliou 18/Gr ***.
There's a tricky perspective to this Greek drama that adds a layer both of black comedy and dark emotion. Writer-director Tonia Mishiali cleverly blues the lines between reality and fantasy, but makes sure that the status of women in this society is presented with a fiery honesty. This is a story about a middle-aged woman who finally gets fed up with being demeaned by her boorish jerk of a husband. The question is if she's only fantasising about getting rid of him or making a plan. 

The Right Pocket of the Robe
dir Yiannis Lapatas; scr Stella Vasilantonaki; with Thodoris Antoniadis, Gerasimos Skiadaresis 18/Gr ***.
A drama about the last, lonely monk at an isolated monastery doesn't sound like much fun. And indeed it's very slow, somewhat clumsily made and weighed down by an incessant voiceover. But as a story about a man and his dog, working out a plan for a changing future, it has a surprising amount of charm. And also some resonant insight that helps us identify with this likeable, well-played protagonist as he spins his entertaining little tales.

Her Job
dir Nikos Labot; scr Katerina Kleitsioti, Nikos Labot; with Marisha Triantafyllidou, Dimitris Imellos 18/Gr ***
Nicely directed and played, this  drama takes on the singular perspective of a provincial Greek women who has been suppressed her whole life by the system. But now that she needs to support her family, she finds untapped resolve to stand up for herself. The script is somewhat underwritten, never quite tackling the characters or situations in much depth, but the feelings resonate strongly, especially as the protagonist takes on misogyny and cold-hearted capitalism.

Still River
dir Angelos Frantzis; scr Angelos Frantzis, Spyros Kribalis; with Katia Goulioni, Andreas Konstantinou 18/Gr *.
Set in a mythical part of Russia where the snow stays on the ground for nine months but everyone frets about an overflowing river contaminating the drinking water, this Latvia-shot Greek film layers a marital drama with a gloom-laden mystery and religious wierdness to absolutely no effect. Overlong and indulgent, it's clear that filmmaker Angelos Frantzis has a lot on his mind, but he struggles to convey it in a way that might gross over to cinema audiences. This leaves the characters deeply unsympathetic and the film wildly melodramatic.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

TIFF: Personal space

I'm perhaps watching too many films here at the 59th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which has now passed the halfway mark and is in the homestretch. It's been good to catch up with films I missed at London Film Festival last month, including the Berlin winner Touch Me Not (above) and Kenya's Rafiki. I'm seeing four or five films per day here - excessive even for me - so have been using the time in between to walk around this city - a colourful, busy place. Here's what I've been watching...

Touch Me Not 
dir-scr Adina Pintilie; with Laura Benson, Tomas Lemarquis 18/Ger ****
Exploring the concept of intimacy using a blended approach that includes both fictional narrative and documentary elements, this film isn't easy to categorise. Its plot is very loose, but there's a strong sense of momentum in the internal journeys of a handful of characters, including filmmaker Adina Pintilie herself. Rather too full-on for mainstream audiences, more adventurous viewers will find themselves prodded into examining their own physicality more honestly.

dir Wanuri Kahiu; with Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva 18/Ken ****.
Small and perfectly formed, this subtle but hugely involving romance takes on a powerfully taboo topic in its homeland of Kenya: same-sex romance. Without either preaching or pushing the premise too far, filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu follows two likeable young women who simply feel drawn to each other. Reactions from the people around them are surprising and darkly provocative, making this quiet little movie deeply important.

dir Alex Moratto; with Christian Malheiros, Tales Ordakji 18/Br ****
Produced by a workshop of young people aged 16 to 20, this Brazilian drama takes a bracingly realistic approach to its story of a teen living, in more ways than one, on the margins of society. Addressing economic issues, religion and sexuality, the film never tries to preach, instead offering an open-handed, humane approach that seeks compassion and hope in a situation that is increasingly desperate. It’s a remarkable little film, beautifully shot and edited, and deeply moving.

All Good [Alles Ist Gut]
dir-scr Eva Trobisch; with Aenne Schwarz, Andreas Dohler 18/Ger *** 
There's an earthy, realistic approach to the difficult situations in this German drama, and the dilemmas the characters face are both timely and involving. But writer-director Eva Trobisch overeggs the script with events that are predictable, over-complicated and ultimately badly contrived. And this pushiness undermines the film's important exploration of the complexity of the #MeToo era.

Smuggling Hendrix
dir-scr Marios Piperides; with Adam Bousdoukos, Fatih Al 18/Cyp ***
Cute but formulaic, this Cypriot caper relies on rather a lot of ramshackle charm as it cycles through a series of slapstick set pieces. But it never manages to surprise us, and filmmaker Marios Piperides never makes anything of the political conflict that provides the entire premise. Still, his script has frequent splashes of very sharp wit, so the movie becomes a crowdpleaser. Well, it’s difficult to hate a film that so shamelessly relies on a mischievous dog.

Holy Boom
dir-scr Maria Lafi; with Luli Bitri, Nena Menti 18/Gr ***
An ambitious multi-strand drama centred in among Athens’ immigrant community, this film’s emotional moments almost make up for its contrived melodrama and moralistic tone. At least writer-director Maria Lafi keeps the situations complex enough to avoid easy answers, even if parts of the story play into the hands of those who falsely believe that migrants are the cause of all problems. And even if the heavy reliance on corny criminal plotlines undermines the more interesting issue-based narrative.

dir Isabella Eklof; with Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde 18/Den *.
A sunny vacation spot is the setting for this rather perplexing Danish melodrama. Populated with undefined characters who are reprehensible, it's a difficult film to engage with, especially since the plot is so sketchy and unconvincing. There are some chilling observations on tough guy masculinity, but the film's message never makes it through the murky narrative. And a startlingly graphic sex scene seems here just to give the film notoriety.

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After the blinding array of movies I'm watching at the festival, I'll be turning my attention back to the regular weekly releases when I get back to London on Monday, chasing down Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and Steve McQueen's Widows, for starters. Other incoming films I need to see include Robin Hood, The Girl in the Spider's Web, Nativity Rocks and Cannes-winner Shoplifters.

Monday, 5 November 2018

TIFF: Making memories

Greetings from the 59th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, where I am on jury duty for the international critics group Fipresci. I've been to Athens several times, but this is my first visit to the Macedonia region, and I am enjoying this lively city, its vast harbour, crowded streets and astonishing number of cafes - is it possible to eat too much souvlaki? Although while the weather is considerably warmer than London right now, I'm spending most of my time inside cinemas. Here's a rather lengthy list of what I've seen lately...

dir-scr Alfonso Cuaron; with Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira 18/Mex ****
An almost overwhelmingly personal drama, this film was drawn from the memories of filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron as an ode to the family servant who helped raise him. Shot in silvery black and white with an engulfing sense of the period, it's the kind of film that lures us in with tiny details then stuns us with either a major event or emotional kick. Everything about the film is organic, with likeable characters who feel like people we have known all our lives.

Ray & Liz
dir-scr Richard Billingham; with Patrick Romer, Ella Smith 18/UK ****
Finely crafted and beautifully observed, this is an anecdotal British drama that dramatises family memories in an earthy, almost bracingly realistic way. Photographer Richard Billingham makes his writing-directing debut with this look into his childhood, creating vivid characters out of his eponymous parents and mischievous little brother Jason (he leaves his young self on the side looking in). It never tries to say much on a deeper level, but it's wry, funny and provocatively moving.

dir-scr Meryem Benm'Barek; with Maha Alemi, Lubna Azabal 18/Fr ****
Edgy and uncompromising, this strikingly inventive film jaggedly cuts through the pretence in a repressive society. The setting is Morocco, and the central theme is the unbending law against extra-marital sex, which carries a prison sentence. Even with realistically unlikeable characters, writer-director Meryem Benm'Barek sympathetically pulls the viewer into a minefield situation that each person is trying to manipulate.

Chained for Life
dir-scr Aaron Schimberg; with Jess Weixler, Adam Pearson 18/US ***.
There's a mash-up of references in this witty, pointed film, which continually subverts expectations as it moves through its tricksy narrative. Filmmaker Aaron Schimberg boldly plays with themes and styles from Todd Browning to David Lynch to Peter Strickland, blurring lines between the film and the film being made within it. It may not quite work, but it's a truly quirky original, exploring the concept of physical beauty and the fragility of friendships.

dir-scr Jan Svankmajer; with Jaromir Dulava, Kamila Magalova 18/Cz ***
Czech maestro Jan Svankmajer playfully deconstructs the plot of this rather nutty romp about a quirky theatre company producing a topical pre-war play that was edited to offer the happy ending that the world didn't get. Combined with behind-the-scenes cutaways, this is the kind of indulgent chaos that shouldn't work at all, but its message about the value of all people, or bugs, comes seeping through the madness.

The Waiter 
dir-scr Steve Krikris; with Aris Servetalis, Yannis Stankoglou 18/Gr ***
Greek filmmaker Steve Krikris brings plenty of moody visual style to this dark drama, so it holds the interest as it slowly creeps through a plot that swirls with suggestion. But as the film continues, it becomes increasingly clear that there's very little to it. Basically a character study, it's very nicely observed but too contrived and humourless to work on any more than a superficial level.

Refuge II: The Ice Path
dir Hristos Nikoleris; with Kika Zachariadou, Yiorgos Spanias 18/Gr ***
Picking up in the middle of the action, this sequel doesn’t require knowledge of an original film (if there was one), as it combines a cabin-in-the-woods horror premise with violent bank robbers and a freaky local superstition. Filmmaker Hristos Nikoleris has fun with this set-up, but keeps things a little too sketchy for any proper suspense to develop. Part of the problem is that the intriguing characters continually do things that are even more idiotic than usual for the genre. But there's a terrific sense of doom.

The Night of Saint Anthony
dir-scr Thanassis Skroubelos; with Maria Papagavriil, Thodoris Prokopiou 18/Gr *.
Perhaps Greeks or historians will find value in this mannered, overwrought drama, but it's amateurishly made and never very cinematic. It's a mix of two horrific events, from the 40s and 60s, in which young people were violently imprisoned, tortured and killed. It plays out as absurdist theatre in a makeshift art exhibition in which two still-grieving parents put a retired commander on trial after he spent decades in hiding. The dialog is an impenetrable rant, veering wildly through the issue complete with rampant overacting, clunky camera work and a dance break. Only for viewers interested in the topic.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

TIFF: All aboard

The 59th Thessaloniki International Film Festival kicked off on Thursday night, and I travelled to Greece on Friday. My first film was Laszlo Nemes' gorgeous Sunset (above), and now I'm running full pelt through the movies. As a member of the Fipresci jury, I will be involved in giving out two prizes: one to a competition film and one to a first-time Greek filmmaker. So we have 27 films to watch and evaluate before we name our winners on closing night, Sunday 11th November.

I've reviewed a few of the films before I got here - from other festivals mainly - and those are linked to the festival's page on the website. And here are the first few things I've seen here...

Sunset [Napszállta]
dir-scr Laszlo Nemes; with Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov 18/Hun 2h22 ****
With this pre-war drama, Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes expands on his singular filmmaking style, tightly following a hapless character through momentous events. It may be set as Europe is about to embark on a half-century long cataclysm, but events are seen through the eyes of a strong young women who doesn't quite grasp what she's watching. It's a mesmerising, achingly well-made film that pulses with desperation. And it's hauntingly timely.

Manta Ray
dir-scr Phuttiphong Aroonpheng; with Wanlop Rungkamjad, Aphisit Hama 18/Tha ****
Thai filmmaker Phuttiphong Aroonpheng puts an artfully personal spin on the Rohingya crisis, telling a story that has waves of meaning for refugees anywhere. It's a loosely plotted film, with very little dialog and no desire to tell the audience what to think. So it will be a challenge for unadventurous moviegoers who like everything spelled out for them. But those willing to dive into the film's currents will find that it has a lot to say.

We [Wij]
dir-scr Rene Eller; with Tijmen Govaerts, Maxime Jacobs 18/Ned ***.
Almost deliberately transgressive, this Dutch-Belgian drama explores the extremes a group of teens are willing to go to simply to express their independence. Many of the plot's twists and turns are seriously outrageous, and yet the way the film is constructed adds a distance to everything, simply because the script contrives to keep the biggest shockers until the end. Even so, the confrontational style is powerful.

Night Out
dir-scr Stratos Tzitzis; with Mara Scherzinger, Spyros Markopoulos 18/Ger ***
There's a certain ramshackle charm to this multi-strand odyssey that keeps us smiling even though it's all rather corny. The actors are all a little too stiffly beautiful to believe, and they never properly dive into the script's excesses. Basically, there are three groups of people on a night out in Berlin: two lively girls are shadowed by a nice Syrian guy (Markopoulos); a woman (Scherzinger) ends up clubbing with an eclectic group of art aficionados when she tries to pitch a business opportunity; and a pregnant woman is trying to figure out who her baby daddy is. All of them converge on the Kit Kat Club for an extended, farcical sex party. Yes, it's pretty full-on, but everything is played with a wink that keeps it from embracing the craziness. Or making any salient points.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Critical Week: Chasing monsters

It's been another eclectic week in the screening rooms around London. First up, there was Slaughterhouse Rulez, a blackly comical horror romp that mixes pastiche with nastiness. The idea is great, but the film is a little choppy. Juliet, Naked is a gently engaging British comedy-drama with romantic inclinations featuring nicely understated turns from Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke and Chris O'Dowd. And Monsters and Men is a provocative American drama about three young men in Brooklyn who are pushed into a corner regarding white-on-black police violence. Its light touch makes it notable.

We had a festive Halloween screening of Hell Fest, a throwback teen horror romp so bog-standard that it's neither scary or funny. Lars Von Trier's The House That Jack Built is an epic-length exploration of a serial killer (a superb Matt Dillon), expertly made and fiercely provocative. And from France, Boys [Jonas] is a finely acted low-key drama about a young man confronting an event in his past through a series of encounters that won't let him go.

Over the next 10 days, I'll travel to Greece to be on the international critics' (Fipresci) jury at the 59th Thessaloniki International Film Festival. While there, I'm also planning to catch some festival films I've missed so far, including Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, Berlin winner Touch Me Not, London winner Joy, Lazlo Nemes' Sunset and Ben Wheatley's Happy Birthday, Colin Burstead.