What makes a movie pop at a film festival? The shock of the new.
The festival opener, Mike Cahill's Sundance hit "I Origins" merges science and "who are we" existentialism in an exciting new way (interview here). We've never seen a priest like Brendan Gleeson's in John Michael McDonagh's Sundance fave "Calvary," who is forced to deal with a member of his congregation who threatens to kill him in one week. What's a poor priest to do, when he knows who it is? (We don't.) Will he tell the authorities, breaking the silence of the confessional? Protect himself with a gun? Escape? (More here.)
Argentinian director Damian Szifron's superb closing night film "Wild Tales" (scooped up by Sony Pictures Classics out of the Cannes competition) is a tour-de-force collection of six insane, utterly identifiable tales of human beings pushed to extreme "primal instinctive behavior" (per the director), from road rage-gone-wrong and a righteously precise explosive expert who fights a corrupt towing company, to the ultimate disastrous wedding. Each carefully wrought jewel of story is more delicious and outrageous and hilarious than the last. Think Almodovar on Tarantino steroids. With a Gustavo Santaolalla score. (Almodovar's Spanish company El Deseo produced.)
It helps to like Bjork if you want to see her concert film "Biophilia Live," an extraordinary record of her ecstatic last performance on her 2013 concert tour for her Grammy-winning eighth studio album at Alexandra Palace in London. (It debuted at Tribeca 2014.) Clearly, bewigged and blue-faced Bjork is in charge and in her element, hopping around the stage. Collaborating with co-directors Peter Strickland ("Berberian Sound Studio") and editor Nick Fenton, the concert movie is intricately choreographed, with an Icelandic choir of 24 barefoot sirens in flowy metallic robes, master percussionist Manu Delago and massive computer elements both musical and visual. The movie intercuts to the concert's gorgeous displays, from outer space to various biological manifestations, from multiple starfish and jellyfish to microscopic DNA strands and viruses --to accompany the song "Virus," of course, which goes: "I feast inside you, my host is you, The perfect match, you and I." (Guy Lodge's excellent Variety review here.)
Veteran filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa's Cannes entry "Maidan" is an unusual front lines doc that takes a different aesthetic approach from "The Square," which grabbed multiple video feeds and interviewed key participants at Egypt's uprising in Tahir Square. "Maidan," referring to the central square in Kiev where thousands of ordinary Ukraine citizens encamped to protest the government, takes getting used to. Deploying the camera as an impersonal, trustworthy and objective observer, fiction and doc filmmaker Loznitsa locks it down on a tripod for long static stretches in various locations--he chooses them as events unfold, sometimes in order to run to safe, higher ground--and edits the results.
At the beginning, we see people walking into the hub of operations for this extraordinary group effort. It's dull at first, but you begin to figure out what the filmmaker is showing us. How do you feed, house and support a revolution? This movie helps to supply that answer as we see the logistics of this initially peaceful protest operation which escalates into a violent revolution with multiple casualties on both sides.
Yes, we know the outcome. But watching these events inexorably unfold is astonishing. As the action becomes more intense--with flaming barricades, people running and tossing grenades and others felled by snipers and carted off for medical attention-- the sophistication of the filmmaking involves the brilliant use of sound. The film's narration is the off-camera public address system that communicates with thousands of protesters and resistance fighters and barks battle orders at people --and doctors--of where to go. You've never seen a movie like this. After months of tracking events, we see the revolutionaries win. For the moment.
Ukraine filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's "The Tribe" was the talk of Cannes. Because it won the Grand Prize at Critic's Week, it's likely to be as audacious an Oscar submission from Ukraine as was Greece's ultimate nominee "Dogtooth." (See Eric Kohn's review here.) Watching the film is intense because we are all leaning in to figure out what is going on. There's no spoken dialogue. We watch a deaf teen bid farewell to his mother and arrive at a school for the deaf where he is hazed by the school's ruling posse of tough guys. The viewer has to try to read the sign language. Finally, there's more than enough information to follow.
A couple of deaf teachers at the school are running a prostitution ring at night, using the gang and two nubile teen girls. Our young tough gets along fairly well until he falls for one of the girls. That's when things go wrong. The deaf have always made fine actors--they are hugely expressive. When one of the girls tries to argue her friend out of having an illegal abortion, emotions escalate as the signer grabs the girl to force her to look at her. They fight as violently, with as much "shouting," as any of us. "The Tribe" is moving, disturbing and horrifying; Slaboshpytskiy deserves kudos for having the guts to pull this off. Yes, it's audacious and new, which means reactions are bound to be mixed.
The people of the landlocked Czech Republic, whose neighbors are Germany, Poland, Austria, and Slovakia--the two countries separated from their post-World War I identity as Czechoslovakia back in 1993-- and its filmmakers are still dealing with their past history, from the Holocaust, which decimated the Czech Jewish population, to the impact of Communism, which sowed rampant distrust of authority and virtually wiped out organized religion.
Young Czech actress Judit Bardos starred in two Czech films. One, by sophomore filmmaker Zdenek Jirasky, took an innovative approach to a familiar subject, the Holocaust. "In Silence" dramatizes the true stories of several artists--Bardos plays gorgeous concert pianist Edith Kraus--who survived the Holocaust, showing their full rich lives before they were carted to the horrors of the concentration camps. The characters narrate their own stories as they experienced them.
France-based editor-director Andrea Sedlackova's Communist-era "Fair Play" could be called "Secrets and Lies." Bardos plays a Czech runner training for the 1984 Summer Olympics whose dissident father has emigrated to Paris. She lives with her devoted mother (Anne Geislerova), a former tennis star who has been reduced by the watchful state to a cleaning woman and still furtively types up reports for an ex-lover. She faces difficult choices, as steroid doping is part of her daughter's intense training. The young runner shaves her hairy legs and breasts, loses her period and winds up in the hospital, after which she refuses to take more steroids. Her coach begs her mother to inject her anyway--in the guise of Vitamin B shots-- to keep her competitive. What's a poor mother to do? The movie could travel and is a possible Czech Oscar submission.
Another film dealing with the paranoia and destruction brought by the Communist state was the talk of Karlovy Vary. Russian Andrei Zvyagintsev's "Leviathan" won best screenplay in the Cannes competition and was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. Will Russia submit the film for the Oscar? Hard to believe, as it is a harsh indictment of the rampant corruption that infects everyday life there. Wall pictures of Vladimir Putin watch over everyone.
"Leviathan" is set in a hardscrabble coastal area where a hothead mechanic's home overlooking the sea is being stolen from him by a greedy local mayor set on making a lucrative development deal. The local court supports the mayor, even when the heavy-drinking mechanic brings in his old Army pal, now a powerful lawyer, to help him fight the man. Ordered to evacuate, the mechanic protests, "I built the place with my own hands. My whole life is here." Like a powder keg about to explode, a group of families set out on a target-shooting expedition, packing guns and vodka. As the men woozily take aim at pictures of Russian leaders, we know nothing good will come of it.
Also rife with corruption is the rural community "Nowhere in Moravia," which scored raucous laughter at the public screening I attended at local coffee house Kino Drahomira, which screens films during the week for one or two days, from Tarantino classic "Pulp Fiction" and "Deliver Us from Evil" to "Searching for Sugar Man," and new movies on the weekend, such as "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and "Planes: Fire and Rescue." "Nowhere in Moravia" is a sexy cutthroat comedy in the vein of French hit "Welcome to the Sticks," which is all about making fun of the local rubes. Our plucky heroine sleeps with just about everyone, while another sad woman is saddled not only with servicing her husband but his brother. There are many slow shots of people silently eating toast and jam or roasting weiners. Everyone knows everyone's business: they all wind up at the local bar every night. But this dark comedy has a surprisingly feminist bite.
Part of what the Karlovy Vary festival offers, besides a well-curated survey of international cinema, is the exotic Carlsbad spa. Yes, I eventually did try the waters, filling a little china cup with a spout with briny warm water at one of the many fountains by the river. I also brought home a bottle of Becherovka, the deservedly popular locally-made herbal bitters (38% proof). I yielded to a rigorous Thai massage at my hillside hotel. And I went to Prague for two rainy days, staying at a former monastery, the well-located St. Augustine, whose bar with curved painted ceilings was once the monks' refectory. It was in walking distance from the stunning Charles Bridge and Old Town, where I checked out the splendid Art Nouveau municipal building and Francouzska Restaurace, as well as Prague's hillside lookout tower and castle. Much like Moscow's Kremlin, Prague Castle is an ancient fort protecting an assortment of precious churches and palaces. Directions for must-see Lobkowicz Palace: "the last palace on the right."
I'll be back. Assorted trailers below.