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.

No comments: