October 18, 2012

SITGES 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

Sitges 2012

If I could only go to one film festival each year, it would be Sitges. Now in its 45th year, the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya is the Cannes of the Uncanny. As genre cinema makes inroads into more mainstream fests such as Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto and even the once-sacrosanct New York Film Festival, a trip to this resort village 30 minutes south of Barcelona seems less essential for the well-traveled festival hound, but as a one-stop shop nothing touches it.

Big galas this year included Looper, Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem, and The ABCs of Death, represented by a murderer's row of genre bad boys including Noboru Iguchi, Simon Rumley, Nacho Vigalondo, Adrián García Bogliano, Thomas Malling and Jake West. Due for January release, the alphabetical death-march to the plasmatic frontiers of oblivion merits a full column of its own—it's a provocative conversation-starter on the aesthetics of the short film, surprisingly avant-garde and often totally fucked up, if usually in a good way. Critics will probably nitpick to, um, death, but there's much here that deserves a deeper read.

Vanishing Waves

Léos Carax's Holy Motors got a lot of love from the juries, as well it should. So did the much lesser-known Vanishing Waves, which scored a Golden Melies prize for the best film to play at Europe's fantastic festivals this year. The Lithuanian-French production film (shown in Europe under the title Aurora) evoked plenty of cinematic cues as well: It's a lyrical thriller about romantic obsession in a cyber-age setting that spins an original story out of the top-secret laboratory experiment gone wrong genre of Inception, The Cell, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Minority Report and, way back when, Dreamscape. In some near-future environment not too far removed from our own world, a neuro-scientist Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) is connected to a young coma victim named Aurora (Jura Jutaie) via the familiar electrodes-and-flotation-tank method. While colleagues in white lab jackets watch on 3D monitors, Lukas enters the woman's unconscious mind, looking for clues that might trigger a release from her coma. Instead, he meets her face to face: beautiful, lithe and very naked, a dream lover materializing from fantasy terrains in which erotic encounters only generate more mystery. The scientists can't see what Lukas sees, and he obscures his findings after each journey, becoming more unhealthily fixated as the experiment progresses. Written and directed by Kristina Buožytė, with co-writer and visual designer by Bruno Samper, the film wisely uses the sci-fi trappings as a platform for an intimate love story, one in which each new episodic revelation pulls the viewer deeper toward an enigmatic core. That the production can suffuse this with a poetic ambience and not slather on the cheese is pretty damn remarkable for the genre, owing a lot to both the striking production design and the expressive use of the actors' faces and bodies in scenes that often are wordless. One sequence near the end is especially powerful—a perfect metaphor for the relationship between the lover and his ideal, between men and women, between science and discovery, between desire—as T.S. Eliot once wrote—and the spasm. The movie could stop there, in eloquent ellipsis, but the filmmakers insist on a firm resolution. Rest assured, it's no Hollywood ending.


Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the '70s raids a deep archive of film footage and resurrects many a lost icon from the dark and wild years of post-Godfather/Dirty Harry exploitation cinema that the Italian movie industry cranked out non-stop throughout the 1970s. Written and directed by Mike Malloy, it's an exhaustive labor of love whose encyclopedic approach only gets more consuming as the story progresses, lit up by many an outrageous saga and egocentric aside from actors like Franco Nero, Antonio Sabato, Fred Williamson, John Saxon, Henry Silva, Richard Harrison, Joe Dallesandro, and the great director Enzo Castellari. Watching the film at the Prado, one of the festival's vintage bijous, I was struck that half these guys had served on a festival jury or walked off with one of its improbably designed honorary trophies at one time or another in the last decade. The film's myriad revelations about the so-called poliziotteschi are not only hilarious but illuminate a deep cultural meaning, suggesting that films such as Napoli violenta (1971), The Violent Professionals (1973), and Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976) weren't mere rip-offs of more popular Hollywood thrillers but acutely contextualized dramas about the volatility and corruption of contemporary Italy. The textbook presentation and heavy use of type to reiterate statements and themes oversells the message, but the astounding array of film clips and colorful, interviews make that easy to overlook.

With its examination of the significance of dubbing in the Eurocrime genre—apparently the sets were as noisy as a parade—the film makes an ideal prelude to Berberian Sound Studio. British director Peter Strickland's psychodrama isn't a giallo, per se, or even so much giallo-Jello, like Amer, but a penumbral thriller about, yep, making a movie soundtrack. Toby Jones is the doughy garden-shed recording engineer summoned from England to the Italian audio laboratory of the title where a would-be giallo maestro named Santini (Antonio Mancino) is struggling to finish the audio effects for his new shocker, The Equestrian Vortex. Amid ambient dread and absurdity in the perpetually darkened room, Jones' Gilderoy transforms from doormat to something more clearly diabolical, as melons are repeatedly smashed to simulate the caving-in of skulls by the hammer-toting duo of Foley goons called "Massimo y Massimo," and the eldritch spells of the film's screenplay seem to take form in real life—or perhaps only in Gilderoy's imagination. As in identity transference films like Polanski's The Tenant and Lynch's Lost Highway, the mysteriousness is what matters—heightened to a sometimes unbearable pitch of sensory overload.

The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

3-DO IT TO ME: Tsui Hark's The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 3D. I have no idea what happened or who did what to whom in this flabbergasting wuxia blowout. I just know it's the craziest use of 3D I've ever seen. It's derived from the 1992 classic New Dragon Gate Inn, but that's not as important as the rollicking pace, berserk special effects, nonstop battle sequences and in-your-face treatment of everything from drops of blood to whisking blades to a decorative scarf that almost feels like it's wrapped itself around your own neck. Ass-kicking Godhead.

BEST SURPRISE: Miss Lovely, a drama of fraternal rivalry set in the Indian porno-horror underground, a sub-Bollywood world of sex and exploitation where the filmmakers are painfully not at the top of the food chain. The film's hard-boiled narrative veers away from the Boogie Nights of Mumbai scenario towards something more heartbreaking, although its strongest moments also are the most pungent of sin and rampant sleazebaggery.

Despite the Gods

MOST POINTLESS DOCUMENTARY: Speaking of Indian cinema and exploitation, there was Despite the Gods. I sympathized with filmmaker and single mom Jennifer Lynch's mid-life crisis for about 20 minutes of this behind-the-scenes doc about the director's misadventure making an Indian-financed horror film about a snake goddess in the shadow of Bollywood. But unless something shocking happened after I hit eject in the screening room, the movie only confirms that her experiences are no more or less mundane than anyone else's.

BEST SCENE NOT IN A MOVIE: A heavy thunderstorm forced the cancellation of the festival's annual Zombie Walk, a parade of hundreds of made-up horror film fans through the village. They all got stuck inside the lobby of the Hotel Melia, which serves as festival headquarters. As a friend Tweeted: "It's like the fall of Saigon... with zombies."

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Posted by ahillis at October 18, 2012 9:23 PM