By Juan Manuel Freire
January 2, 2005 - 1:57 PM PST
The Sitges Film Festival, one of Europe's premiere venues for science fiction, fantasy and horror, takes place each winter in Spain. Juan Manuel Freire sent the following dispatches to GreenCine Daily.
Here we are again, folks. Sitges strikes back and we're happy to be hurt. Surprised. Thrilled. Even disappointed. This must be one of the few festivals in the world where even bad movies are good - they pack just enough cheap thrills to keep our inner geek awake, to entertain us in all their badness. But this year's edition of the fantastic film festival, running from December 2 through 11, looks stunning, leaning less on the so-bad-they're-good films and more on the so-good-they're-heavenly ones. The event will feature the cream of the crop of recent fantastic motion pictures in its Official Section, as well as a showing of all-time great European titles in a new space: Imaginary Europe. Tributes, retrospectives and special sessions complete a program that should make any film-lover swoon.
In addition, the festival welcomes the Star Wars Conference, the greatest event related to George Lucas's creation ever organized in Europe. No fewer than 5000 fans of the mythic series are expected to take in exhibitions, conferences and a special marathon screening. Steve Sansweet, LucasFilm's main PR man, will accept the honorary award, The General, granted by the direction of the festival, in the name of workaholic Lucas.
Yesterday, opening day, the festival offered excellent viewing, though the best is yet to come. The honor of inaugurating the festival was given to the dramatically flawed but visually fascinating Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, while Hayao Miyazaki's animated fantasy, Howl's Moving Castle opened the competitive section with a stunning array of poetic inventions. Special sessions hosted the entire Infernal Affairs trilogy, the posh Spanish spoof El asombroso mundo de Borjamari y Pocholo, a kind of Zoolander with Spanish points of reference, and the unclassifiable Chilean film Promedio rojo. More to come.
Great ambitions, hard work. Two titles just screened strive to match the high objectives of the Sitges official section with varying degrees of success. Shane Carruth's Primer is an original take on time travel which transforms its economic limitations into virtues and demonstrates the sky's the only limit when you've got extraordinary talent - this movie is a true revelation you must have already read about a lot in these pages. Otherwise, Jonathan Glazer's Birth, though made by a filmmaker with an eye for fascinating images, sinks at times under the weight of its own self-importance, with long shots offering short interest and annoying string music acting as an obvious counterpart to icy exposition. However, like Primer, it shows an attention to sound design that is difficult to find in most contemporary films, Lynch aside. One fine idea, for example: the use of a kind of disco beat to make the internal tension of static characters clearer. Maybe this was already done successfully by Michael Giacchino on Alias, but it thrilled me again. It worked.
Great ambitions, great yawns, sometimes. As you can see, not every film here is exactly lighter than air, but tonight there's Seed of Chucky.
The "Anima't" section gave us a gift yesterday. Shinji Aramaki's Appleseed is an incredible adaptation of Masamune Shirow's classic manga, previously translated to big screen by Katayama in 1988. Aramaki's version surpasses the old one, rising to the level of Akira and Ghost in the Shell. The impossible, incomprehensible density of its screenplay doesn't matter too much when you're in front of such cutting-edge visuals. Entirely shot on 3D, frantic and infinite, the new Appleseed presents inventive action in an inventive way and reminds viewers why they came to love cinema in first place.
The same can be said, really, about Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, the famous ultraviolent thriller that took Sitges by storm yesterday. It was the most sought-after ticket of the festival, and it'll be the most talked-about film once the festival wraps. It should take all the awards with it. By comparison, Johnnie To's Breaking News isn't much - but To's combination of action flick and meditation on the power of media deserves special attention for its transparency, its honesty and, as always with To, its effortless grace.
If Appleseed and Oldboy are reminders of the curative powers of motion pictures, then The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things reminds us that not just anyone ought to be allowed to pick up a camera. Adapted from the works of JT Leroy, Asia Argento's second feature after Scarlet Diva pretends to portray the other side of American dream in a sympathetic, natural, realistic mode, but it's just an offensive atrocity exhibition with no apparent point at all. Simply said, turkey.
The festival is in full swing. One morning, 10 am, the same hour some are trying to come to terms with Lucile Hadzihalilovic's one-of-a-kind Innocence, Guillermo Del Toro gives a charming master class in which he yearns for a more juvenile and active film criticism, one with a greater respect for popcorn films.
While this dialogue between the Mexican director and a thousand fanboys carries on, Brad Anderson's psychological thriller The Machinist is shown to a Spanish audience for the first time. The director and the vast majority of cast is from US, and the film's spoken in perfect English, but this is essentially a Spanish production, backed by the Castelao and Filmax production houses and staffed with a crew of Spanish professionals. And what a production, I must say. The Machinist features beautiful cinematography by Xavi Giménez, precise editing by Luis de la Madrid and great score by Roque Baños. They all contribute to make the film a memorable aesthetic experience.
Indeed, along with Oldboy, The Machinist (despite its painfully unsuccessful US release prior to its screening at Sitges) is one of the favorites for the awards. It seems this is not the case for two British films which also premiered yesterday in competition - John Simpson's Freeze Frame, which didn't win many over with its chaotic mixture of textures serving as an obvious visual metaphor for its main character's feelings of paranoia, and Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, whose existential flair some critics and viewers interpreted as mere pedantry.
I reserved the night to see two very different films from parallel sections. In the Noves Visions zone, Takashi Shimizu's Marebito, which ruined what could have been a nice night with its unbearable philosophical rumblings on fear. But in the Seven Chances zone, critics' week, Kim Ki-duk's Samaritan Girl - a crude but beautiful tale of troubled souls in search of an inner stability, only marred by those cheap shocks that the Korean filmmaker should learn to avoid. They make him look like Takashi Miike, whose Izô bored everyone to death who was exposed to it yesterday.
Yesterday's most discussed film was Eugenio Mira's The Birthday, a rather poor film for some, almost a masterpiece for others. My five cents? Sadly, I have to say my expectations were high for Mira's debut - his well-known short, "Fade," was a milestone for the format in this country - and they weren't exactly fulfilled. Featuring Corey Feldman in the main role, and a rather cool American look that blends the 40s with the present, the film tells the curious story of a neurotic man who nervously comes to his fiancée's birthday party and finds, well, the end of the world, more or less. The story could have been told within a single episode of Twilight Zone. But Mira spends more than an hour of his comedy-horror - which runs to 117 minutes - developing situations that pack few laughs and few thrills. The payoff is a bit funny, a bit thrilling, but it doesn't make up for an hour and a half of derivation. Hopefully, Mira, who can shoot with musical, stylish flair, will do far better in the future.
Two more days like Tuesday and Wednesday and I'll have to crawl into a thermal bath as soon as Sitges ends. The festival is turning into a non-stop, full-throttle series of films featuring blood, suspense... our hearts might not be able to hold out.
To review some of the films in competition, especially since the awards will be announced tomorrow: The second promising Spanish feature of the section, Guillem Morales's El habitante incierto didn't turn out to be as disappointing as The Birthday, but it's not the well-rounded and intriguing first feature we were expecting from the director of the short, "Upside Down." It's only a halfway-there thriller too obviously indebted to the ambiguity and paranoia of the best of Roman Polanski.
Other disappointments in Official Section have been Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson's One Point O, a pretentious Kafkaesque thriller whose only positive point was the always seductive presence of Deborah K Unger; Takashi Shimizu's US version of The Grudge, presented by its lead player, Sarah Michelle Gellar, as the greatest thing in the world when, in fact, it's a dull horror flick whose capacity to shock relies essentially on an array of rather cheesy sound effects; and Chuck Parello's The Hillside Strangler, an inept exploitation movie with C Thomas Howell burying his Mr Nice Guy persona.
On the plus side, one film sets new standards for animation and, indeed, cinema in general: Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, a beautiful sequel to one of the greatest animes of all-time. Again, Mamoru Oshii is incapable of deciding between technical perfection and deepest pathos and delivers plenty of both in this incredible story of humans who seem to be robots and robots which [who?] feel too human for their own sake. This is hardcore.
And the winners are... the right ones. No alarms, no surprises. The jury of the Official Section - Ken Foree, Marco Müller, Christopher Priest, Koldo Serra and Estrella Zapatero - has set every award in its right place (though, well, Primer deserved more attention). Oldboy, the great thriller by Park Chun-wook, has received two prizes, including the Best Film distinction and the Jose Luis Guarner Critic Award. Christian Bale took the Best Actor award for The Machinist and Best Director prize went to Johnnie To for Breaking News. In the Mèlies d'Argent category, "El soñador" won the Award for the Best European Short Film, while Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 won the Award for the Best European Film. Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle won the Audience Award and Mamoru Oshii's Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence received the Orient Express Casa Asia Award.
For a look at the full list of awards, click here to download a doc.
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Festival Internacional de Cinema de Catalunya.
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Juan Manuel Freire
A journalist and editor, Barcelona-based Juan Manuel Freire is co-author of Teen spirit: De viaje por el pop independiente.
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