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Further Festival Frolics

So the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival has been over a week now but it’s worth recapping what I saw in the days following my marathon Sunday viewing.

On the Tuesday of the Festival I caught the entertaining oddity Were the World Mine. A camp indulging in gay teen wish fulfilment, the film combines traditional teen angst drama with musical fantasy to create a bizarre yet recognisable fusion.

Loosely autobiographical, according to director Tom Gustafson, the story follows a troubled gay teen dealing with his attractions at an all-boys school in a somewhat conservative American town.

First escaping into daydreams about his rugby star crush – the film’s portrayal of a daydreaming adolescent is commendable – framed in the context of a school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the film takes an interesting and utterly unexpected turn when the youth, Timothy, successfully fabricates the love potion from that play, and uses it to help the world see through his eyes, by literally making the whole town gay.

It’s a little juvenile, but it’ all performed with a nod and a wink, and it pretty much works fine as an indie comedy. Whether it truly has anything to say about gender relations and sexuality is debatable, but through the use of dance and music, all lyrics by Bill Shakespeare, it certainly sets itself apart from any similar films.

Certainly it’s the freshest the love potion film has seemed in decades.

Right after that, though thankfully in the same cinema, was a gala presentation of the sensational Il Divo. A political biopic like none I have ever seen, the latter days of the rule of Giulio Andreotti are played out in manner that could be called part drama, part gangster movie, part music video.

Indeed, the impressive young director Paolo Sorrentino said in discussion after the film that his intention had been to create a “rock opera” about Andreotti, and it very much comes off that way.

Surreal flourishes permeate the otherwise sensible walls of power in Rome: a cat with David Bowie eyes engages Andreotti in a staring contest; blood red subtitles introducing characters shift within the frame to contest with camera movements; even the music from the soundtrack is utterly eccentric.

As Andreotti, Tony Servillo creates a caricature that feels too strange to not be real. There is an inhumanity to him, as he rings his hands, hunched like Count Orlok, and yet when we see his relationship with his wife, and when we see the pressure that is on him and the sleeplessness power creates for him, we realise that it is far more than a caricature that is on display here.

In perhaps the film’s most startling image (and there are several in contention), Andreotti walks off his sleeplessness up and down a corridor for what feels like minutes on end, the camera swinging to keep up with movement as he darts in and out of focus. There is a potential master behind this camera, but like many of the masters he is clearly really having fun.

A complete antithesis to the realism of Italy’s other Cannes success last year, Gomorrah, Il Divo similarly asks questions without answers and leaves an incredible amount of ambiguity, while pointing towards Andreotti’s guilt.

It’s a bizarre experience, but one that you can’t shake off afterwards as you still picture Andreotti shuffling along the midnight streets of Rome with an armed cavalcade of police at his side.

The next evening was the Irish premiere of Religulous, another feature long out in the US, which I had been waiting for for some time. I’ve never made much secret of my staunch atheism so this was always going to be a case of preaching to the choir (if you’ll forgive that specious turn of phrase in this instance).

I’d be lying so if I did not admit I was slightly disappointed. The film took what I consider to be too flippant an approach in its observances of the faults in adhering to outdated religious doctrines. To finally turn around as Bill Maher does in the final reel and put forth what amounts to a call to arms for atheists and agnostics is quite a step that one feels a whole TV series would have required rather than 100 minutes of witty analysis.

In fairness, as comedy goes, making fun of religion is like shooting Jesus fish in a barrel.

But that’s not to say it isn’t funny, it has some great moments, mostly supplied by witty subtitles and bizarre interviewees. The discussion with an eccentric priest outside the Vatican contains many of the highlights, as does the interview with an Arkansas senator.

But good fun and occasional insights do not make it the must-see event it really should have been.

The surface has been scratched, but who will start hacking away now that Bill Maher and Larry Charles have retreated?

An exhausting dash from Cineworld to the Screen (again) made me very on time for a delayed screening of Tokyo!, coupled with Il Divo my highlight of he Festival.

This three-pronged assault on logic through surrealism and whimsy is one of the best collections of short films I have ever come across.

The first film, Interior Design, has left me forgiving the bitter taste Michel Gondry left in my mouth with the dire Be Kind Rewind. It is an expertly crafted story that begins as a generic but pleasant “country girl in the big city” story before mutating into a Kafkaesque nightmare with a happy ending.

The story of Hiroko’s (Ayako Fujitani) struggle to feel useful and her despair in realising the truth about herself is captured wonderfully through the film’s pacing and Fujitami’s introverted performance. When all surrealist hell breaks loose, Gondry uses his trademark “wait, how did he do that?” special effects so brilliantly that it sweeps you up and takes you away with it. The ending hovers in a void between meaningless and insightful that all you can do is smile.

Merde is the weakest of the three vignettes, but that is hardly a criticism. Directed by little-known French filmmaker Leos Carax, it tells the story of a horrible French troll (Denis Lavant) who lives beneath Tokyo, venturing forth only to terrorise through sheer unpleasantness.

The first elongated take following Merde along his path of terror, on what feels like a never-ending or endlessly repeating shopping street – stealing money (to eat) and licking helpless passersby.

When eventually captured and put on trial, his lawyer appears to also be a similar troll creature, albeit one who has become a respected member of French society. Pythonesque comedy ensues as the two communicate through gibberish; it nearly gets old but always remains funny, even through the lengthy courtroom scene, which is kept fresh by the use of – for no discernable reason – 24-style split screens.

It’s all very silly but very fun, with brilliant fake news coverage adding to the nonsense. The final gag is truly inspired, although one fears Carax could follow up on the offer it contains.

Finally, Shaking Tokyo is Tokyo!’s triumph. From Bong Joon-ho, the Korean genius behind the genre-bending The Host, it tells the story of a hikikomori, a sort of homebound hermit, who only orders in food and refuses to make eye contact with visitors, and designs his dwelling with used-up toilet rolls and empty pizza boxes.

After a chance encounter with a beautiful woman and a subsequent earthquake, the nameless shut-in begins to rethink his life, and the story ventures from comedy into the worlds of romance and science fiction.

It is an utter delight with more than enough quirky gags to keep it constantly fresh, as well as one of the most charming voiceovers in recent memory.

On Thursday night I took a friend to see Two For the Road, playing as one of the many classic films on show. As an extra treat it was on at the Lighthouse cinema, which I had not been to since its reopening last year. It must be the comfiest and most aesthetically pleasing cinema in Dublin.

The film was more of a treat than I expected, detailing the romantic ups and downs of an English couple over 12 years as their various holidays in France criss-cross one another in time.

The back-and-forthing feels remarkably novel for 1967, it’s the sort of stylistic device we like to think belongs solely to the likes of Christopher Nolan. But really this is all about the magnificent script (by Frederic Raphael) and the impressive chemistry between Albert Finney (utterly charming) and Audrey Hepburn (who goes from pretty pixie to bitchy madam).

Some of the sequences work better than others. The youngest pairing are so full of promise (that we see simultaneously blighted) that it’s hard not to love them, and their dialogue is so laced with double entendre that it is always hysterical. Another pairing sees them travelling with an infuriating American couple, who you wish to both laugh and strangle they are so totally true-to-life.

But the eldest, successful and bitter sequences are so nasty, and Hepburn’s outfits so gruesomely over the top, that they never quite work properly. Especially toward the end, where the film loses its sense of rhythm and extends each scene needlessly, that by the finale you feel utterly exhausted.

It is still a film years ahead of its time however.

So after what felt like an almost faultless run at the Film Festival I took my chance on an Irish film for my last night, the Saturday, when the director of Song For a Raggy Boy, Aisling Walsh, presented her new film, The Daisy Chain.

A horror (sort of), in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby, the film defiantly chose not to work.

Beginning promisingly with the journey of a young couple, played by the usually reliable Samantha Morton and Steven Mackintosh, to his former home in Co. Mayo as they expect their second child, following the death of their firstborn, the film quickly misses its footing with an overindulgence in twee Oirishness and hammy acting.

A local girl, Daisy, whose face is inexplicably always dirty, is cruel and odd, though friendly towards Martha (Morton).

When her entire family ends up dead, no one suspects a thing and the newcomers to town take her in. Despite her being really creepy.

Suddenly people start to whisper that she might not be human, and might actually be a “fairy changeling” (watch in horror as the cast clearly hold back giggles while saying those words – you might not be so lucky).

The defence comes from Martha that she is probably autistic, but that just raises further questions as to why on earth this couple are left looking after her.

There are a few good sequences: Daisy – who, played by newcomer Mhairi Anderson, is genuinely impressive in her creepiness – nearly pushes some local children off a cliff as she violently demands they “Play with me!”; a crazed local attempts to do away with the girl in a rather fiendish Wile E Coyote-style pit trap, but even that whole scene is spoiled by a slow motion shot that looks as if it was created with the free software that comes with a new MacBook.

The film is riddled with errors. Continuity errors, editing mishaps, hapless dialogue. When Daisy’s parents die, a garda says that the locals wouldn’t be so scared if it hadn’t happened on Halloween, which is the first we’ve heard of this!

At an earlier point, Martha finds a drowned child in the water; when his mother sees her with him she cries “Jack! Jack!” and continues to sob his name. The following scene, down the Garda station, has Martha ask a garda: “What was the boys name?”

A number of subplots pop up without purpose, including a sequence of marital infidelity that comes from nowhere interesting and goes nowhere at all.

It’s sloppy work, which is a shame because it has merit – it is wonderfully shot in some impressive Irish countryside locations, Morton and Anderson both pull off their roles, and Daisy is genuinely unsettling. But it all builds up to an open-ended climax that reveals that even the writer had no idea how to end this.

There isn’t even a theme, in two charming early sequences a crucifix is referenced (bringing to mind if nothing else The Exorcist), implying that there might be a theme of old beliefs versus new, but this never fully materialises. By the end of the film the only moral on show is that autistic children should be culled before they kill us all!

It was a dreadful end to what had otherwise been a terrific week of solid film viewing. Here’s looking forward to next year, when hopefully I’ll be able to take a more active role. And perhaps I can take in a few more festivals in the interim.


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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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