Sitges 04

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By Juan Manuel Freire

Festival Internacional de Cinema de Catalunya.

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.

December 3

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.

December 4

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.

December 5

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.

December 7

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.

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