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.

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