All the Fun of the Festival!

The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival opened on Thursday evening, but due to scheduling conflicts there are only a few days when I’m free to see things. But that hasn’t stopped me from using those days to their fullest potential so far.

Why today (that is, Sunday), I saw five films, which I suspect is an unbeatable record for the festival given the screening times. Good job, me!

First up was a pre-afternoon screening of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino at the Savoy, which was surprisingly only just over half full, perhaps the fault of the early start. It’s been out for some time now in the US but still a few weeks off general release over this side of the Atlantic. It’s hard to criticise a man who still churns out good films at his age, but something is definitely missing from this.

The first hour of the film verges on self-parody, as Walt Kowalski growls disapprovingly through his wife’s funeral, neighbourly visits and a run-in with hoods. It’s Eastwood playing an Eastwood character rather than making a character work for him. The gun and motor fetishes just add to it. This is the sort of thing that has ruined Robert De Niro since the late ’90s – playing himself for laughs.

Which is undoubtedly what is going on in the first half of this film; the growls, the glares, the in-your-face (-and-ears) racism. What is bizarre is how after the initial comic shock value the word “gooks” can still get a laugh out of an audience – I’ve heard of cinematic escapism, but can people actually live out their moderate race hate through a film?

That said, the second half utterly shifts gear (yes, I went for the car pun). The gloves very much come off and the moral message comes to the fore – the ending is actually surprising and touching. It’s surprising that such a scathing commentary on modern America did so well at the box office. Also refreshing to see a film about a car that doesn’t treat the auto like it’s in a porn movie.

After a much-needed Butler’s coffee and an irresistible Vertigo (it was €10 – recession be damned!), it was off to the Screen cinema  to see The Letter Never Sent, a Siberian-set 1959 drama from Mikhail Kalatozov, who directed I Am Cuba. A slight snag – the reel did not arrive to the festival on time. Initially peeved at having to see a “replacement film”, I was delighted to learn that in addition to the replacement I could also exchange my ticket for another film – Tuesday night is now sorted.

The replacement was The Karamazovs, showing elsewhere in the Festival, a charming take on Dostoyevsky’s novel, in which a Czech theatre group stage a play of the story at an alternative arts show held in a steelworks near Krakow

As you might expect, the lives of the players get tied into the story, as does the tragic tale of an employee at the factory, yet somehow something feels very original here. At times the players move in and out of fact and fiction so fluidly you can only tell where you are by the absence or presence of absurdly long Russian names.

The film has almost no sympathy for actors, and paints them as anything from ruthlessly selfish to commitably eccentric.

Yet when the play gets into full swing there is an eruption of drama, and you do get to witness these actors give their all, simultaneously enjoying themselves and rising to the challenge of the material. Perhaps if there is any great weakness in this it is that the filmmakers have allowed the original material to so greatly overpower what they have added themselves.

Still, I have difficultly raising condemnations against a film that contains an interlude in which a small puppet cat plays Dostoyevsky, and answers questions on how he gets his inspiration.

I could, however, probably condemn Helen, which started so shortly after The Karamazovs that had it not been on in the same screen I could never have made it on time.

The first feature from British-based Dubliners Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, Helen is the extension of a series of shorts the duo (under the charming label ‘Desperate Optimists’) previously produced, known as the Civic Life Series, with which I am unfamiliar. The gist is realism based on long takes, location shooting and non-professional actors.

Ironically, for such a low-key production, Helen boasts a premise that could easily be the backbone of a Hollywood drama/thriller/comedy/horror; a shy girl is used in the police recreation TV spot for a missing teen, a popular classmate. But Helen is the draftee, Joy is the missing person, and the title makes it clear that this is going to be a film in which the main theme is not what might sell tickets. The film has fittingly been described as L’avventura meets Crimewatch UK.

However, there’s a dollop of Persona in there as well, as Helen begins to adapt herself into the former life of Joy. She begins to wear the police-supplied double of Joy’s yellow leather jacket everywhere, allowing for some interesting though eventually boring juxtapositions of yellow and things that don’t normally have yellow in front of them.

It’s not so much the lack of closure in Joy’s story that slows this film down (it is excruciatingly slow-moving) – as I said, it’s ‘Helen not ‘Joy’ – but rather that Helen’s story is far too empty. Annie Townsend as Helen shows little emotion towards all things (facially none, her voice-over betrays a mild sadness), whether it be revelations about her family or discovering happiness in Joy’s life.

The funding, partially Irish, results in some awkward sequences in which the action moves from real England to a suspiciously Dublin-looking pseudo England, where all the actors suddenly have Irish accents. Most painful is Joy’s boyfriend, and soon the object of Helen’s awkward affections, who’s Dublinness is not so grating rather than his delivery, which makes him sound like he is an ad for mobile phones. On the radio.

While trying to focus on how lost Helen is (she was already lost before she developed a second identity!), the filmmakers get lost themselves, and it becomes clear far from the end that the final fade to black (of several) will leave us with neither answers nor questions about what they want us to care about. Actually I didn’t really care about Joy by the end either.

Dropping my one star rating into the audience vote box before complaining about how tired I was getting, I grabbed a crepe for dinner before sprinting to the IFI for today’s highlight. Susuz Yaz, or Dry Summer as my ticket said, is a Turkish drama from 1964, directed by Metin Erksan. Part Cain and Abel, part There Will Be Blood, it follows a brutish older brother’s decision to dam off the water spring flowing from their land, effectively robbing their neighbours of water as summer approaches.

There is something splendidly simple about it all; angry brother, good brother, good brother’s beautiful but weak-willed wife. It feels like classic Hollywood (there’s a hint of Treasure of the Sierra Madre about proceedings here), with a pinch of the exotic (throw in Dovzhenko’s Earth into the mix).

There’s an erotic flourish to proceedings between the lovers, while the violence that comes from the older brother’s actions is surprisingly shocking – resulting in a slightly sped-up group beating with sticks.

The black and white images are crisp beautifully shot, with stylish rapid camera movements that make it stand out from other films.

Much of the action takes place around the small dam blocking the water channel, which provides some imaginative shots and an unforgettable finale.

Erol Tas as Osman, the selfish brute, is a joy to watch in his nastiness and a horror to watch in his vile lusting for his brother’s wife.

It is likely to be one of the Festival’s biggest crowd pleasers.

Later, back in the Screen, I was greeted with a high-five by Festival staff as recognition for my day’s back-and-forthing.

The last film of my day was to be Mar Nero, or Black Sea, the story of a standoffish elderly Florentine woman who comes to grow fond of her Romanian carer. A little heavy on sentiment at times, and long in the middle, this did turn into a pleasantly bittersweet tale.

Ilaria Occhini gives it gusto with a cane as the aged Gemma, but it Doroteea Petre as immigrant Angela who steals – the camera is clearly besotted with her.

It seems a shame to shoot in Florence and use so few of its beautiful locations, though a number of shots did capture that city’s peculiar peachy-beigeness.

There are a few nice touches: Gemma finds flakes from her dead husband’s beard left behind in his razor, later she converses with Angela’s father though neither speak the same language; both have been done before but there is wit and originality on show.

Unfortunately it strays into mundanity once too often, and the camera often gets so lost in the soft curves of Petre’s face that you would check your watch if you could look away from her yourself.

The music, however, has a wonderfully uplifting Romanian pastoral sound and is alone worth commending the film for.

There won’t be any binges quite like today’s for the duration of the festival, though I am particularly excited about the screening of Il Divo on Tuesday. I’ll keep you posted.

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