Monday, February 25, 2013

JDIFF - 23rd and 24th February Round-up

Curtain Call

The final weekend of JDIFF Edition Eleven kicked off with White Elephant (dir. Pablo Trapero). It started well - a few heavily styilised opening sequences scored to a truly overwhelming, forceful Michael Nyman soundtrack promise good things. Alas, what follows is disappointing. There's an old priest (Ricardo Darín) who calls in a young priest (Jérémie Renier) to assist him in a violent slum in Buenos Aires. It's influenced by a true story, but alas the story is told in a wholly unremarkable, formulaic way. The performances are decent, there's an impressive tracking shot or two, the rare bursts of that deafening Nyman soundtrack are arresting, and it's moderately involving overall. This is a film that is merely alright - it does not waste your time or any grievous crime like that, but simply fails to do anything particularly special.

One cinema hop later, a treat awaited: a screening of Kubrick's The Killing. A confession: despite counting several of the great man's films among my all time favourites, my knowledge of his filmography is a long way from thorough. I was glad of the opportunity to see this 1956 production for the first time in a theatrical environment. It went down a treat. Now, it's not to be counted amongst the wildly ambitious, paradigm-shifting masterpieces Kubrick would go onto produce. Yet it's still a delight - a tightly scripted noir with terrific performances and suitably moody, claustrophobic cinematography that makes the film;s low budget seem like an asset rather than a restriction. Telling the story of a heist through multiple perspectives, The Killing is particularly thrilling in the second half when said heist plays out in giddily disastrous ways. The script is never less than smart, with some killer lines and an underlying blackly comic tone. At least Tarantino has acknowledged Reservoir Dogs' deep, deep depth to this.

The hottest ticket of the weekend - and the festival in general, really - was Much Ado About Nothing with Joss Whedon in attendance. The film - a Shakespeare adaptation slavishly loyal to the original text - is a lot of fun. Whedon and his cast of regulars - Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Fran Kranz, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher etc... - do a great job bringing the language to life with wonderful timing both comic and dramatic. The film is clearly low-fi - it's primarily shot in Whedon's house in simple, to-the-point monochrome visuals. But it's the extra flourishes that bring it to life - particularly a constant onslaught of witty and often genuinely hilarious sight gags. After the excess of The Avengers, it's great to see Whedon working on a low budget with such infectious cheeriness. Alas, as entertaining as the film was, a crowd of predictably devoted Whedonites somewhat damaged the experience - laughing so hard and with such frequency that it was actively distracting. It's always encouraging to see an audience loving a film, but hysterics when no hysterics are justified can ruin a cinema trip. That was a minor if inevitable complaint. Luckily, Whedon himself proved to be as charming and witty as could be expected, with himself and able moderator John Maguire expertly keeping a too-short Q&A session flowing smoothly.

Sunday offered The Summit (dir. Nick Ryan), a well-crafted documentary concerning a tragic forty-eight hours on K2 that resulted in the death of eleven climbers. The film is primarily focused on Irish climber Ger McDonnell, but also gifts screentime to the various other individuals involved in that fatal ascent/descent (though largely a film with a deep respect for its subjects, the film is none too subtle in its criticism of the leader of a Korean climbing team). Aside from a tendency to fade in and out of black with regularity, disjointing the storytelling in the process, the mix of recreations, interviews and archive footage successfully explains the story and develops the various personalities with impressive efficiency. It's a compelling story, well told. Should be warmly received on wide release much like Touching the Void was a decade ago (!).

Ah, the Surprise Film! I can't begrudge it too much since my lucky guess last year resulted in a free season pass, but the JDIFF institution doesn't have the most promising track record. Alas, Welcome to the Punch (directed by someone whose name doesn't deserve a mention) was an abomination even compared to the mediocrities that have disappointed in the past. Just a pitifully derivative film from the off, almost completely devoid of worth. A potentially strong cast - James McAvoy, David Morrissey, Mark Strong, Peter Mullan etc... - make one wonder what the hell must have gone wrong between inception and completion. It has a plot that is both completely unbelievable and absolutely predictable. For example, when David Morrissey's high-ranking police official is introduced, there is no doubt that he's involved in some sort of grand political conspiracy concerning all those 'wink wink, nudge nudge' references to gun control in Britain. Eighty minutes of bland nothingness follows before the eventual 'twist', but don't expect the motivations or particulars to follow any traditional rules of logic or credibility.

The festival concluded on a further disappointing note with the good-intentioned but cinematically lacking Blood Rising (dir. Mark McLoughlin). The documentary follows Irish artist Brian Maguire as he embarks on journeys to Juarez, Mexico. The city has suffered from two decades of young women disappearing or being murdered in mind-boggling numbers, and Maguire is interested in paying respect to the victims in his own painting work by visiting the city and getting to know their families. I was looking forward to seeing how this was handled, especially after reading the fictionalised portrait of the city in Roberto Bolano's astonishing opus 2666. Blood Rising, however, simply doesn't work - it stretches a half hour worth of material to feature length. The result is a sluggishly paced, amateurish production where even individual scenes and interviews feel insufferably drawn-out (the fact that Maguire takes an extended, contemplative pause after every other word doesn't help). Almost feels like it should have been an Internet video for an NGO at times. The documentary Waste Land tackled similar thematic material in a much more accomplished and vivid manner. The stories of Juarez are fascinating & devastating, and the continued massacre of women in the city deserves to be flagged on an international stage. This is unlikely to be the film that provokes meaningful action. The visiting mother of a victim at the post-film Q&A provided more raw and emotionally affecting testimony than anything the documentary had to offer. There's undoubtedly passion and emotion motivating the film, but good intentions doesn't make it any more successful as a piece of documentary cinema.

And that's it for Film Ha Ha's coverage of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013! Got around twenty films fit in over seven days of festival-going, and there were only three outright duds (two on the final day, unfortunately) which isn't too bad a batting average. Finally, because everyone loves lists (you're lying if you deny it, you liar), a list of my favourite films of the fest (I've disqualified classic screenings of Spies and The Killing, but they were both wonderful):

1. Like Someone in Love (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
2. Pieta (dir. Kim Ki-duk)
3. Stoker (dir. Park Chan-wook)
4. Much Ado About Nothing (dir. Joss Whedon)
5. The King of Pigs (dir. Yeun Sang-ho)
6. Beyond the Hills (dir. Cristian Mungiu)
7. Blancanieves (dir. Pablo Berger)
8. Sleepless Night (dir. Kun-jae Jang)
9. Vanishing Waves (dir. Kristina Buozyte)
10. The Summit (dir. Mark McLoughlin)

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