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Karlovy Vary Film Festival Roundup
Stephen Dalton , July 13th, 2011 07:36

Stephen Dalton reports from the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic

Dobry Den! Greetings from Karlovy Vary, the picture-postcard spa town nestled in hilly woodland on the north-west edge of the Czech Republic. With its cobbled streets, imperial palaces and old-world opulence, this time-warped tourist magnet is home to one of Europe’s oldest and most elegant film festivals. Most of the action revolves around the imposing Hotel Thermal, a dung-coloured monument to Cold War concrete brutalism with a fabulously kitsch retro-futuristic interior. It’s a true grim fairy tale, Kafka meets Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

It may not have the glitzy media profile of Cannes or Sundance, but Karlovy Vary has been growing in reputation and attendance in the two decades since the former Czechoslovakia emerged from more than 40 years of Soviet Communist dominance. This year’s programme featured almost 200 films from more than 50 countries, a quarter of them world premieres. Over 120,000 public tickets were also sold to a largely young, feverishly keen audience. Screenings are generally full, enthusiastic and often rowdy.

Karlovy Vary has long been a prime launchpad for cinema from the former Eastern Bloc, but this year it included prestige premieres from Britain, Western Europe and North America too. There was also a groovy little sidebar of rock and pop documentaries under the heading 2011: A Musical Odyssey. Here is a Top Ten best of the fest, all hopefully coming to a screen near you soon…

Hobo with a Shotgun

An over-the-top splatterpunk parody of early 1980s action movies, Jason Eisener’s cheerfully lurid Canadian comedy was inspired by a spoof trailer made for Quentin Tarantino’s Grindcore project, but manages to surpass both the movies made by Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez in its blood-spurting cartoon violence and knowingly cheesy homages. Rutger Hauer hams it up royally as a vengeful tramp bringing vigilante justice to a hellishly corrupt city ruled over by an operatically deranged crime boss. In one of the film’s many genius touches, the homicidal villain’s two psychopath sons are both Ray-Ban-wearing dead ringers for Tom Cruise circa Risky Business. Relentlessly dumb in a smart way, Hobo With a Shotgun recalls the shamelessly pulpy irreverence of early Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson, before they started making interminably dull family blockbusters about superheroes and goblins. It opens in Britain this week - go on, treat yourself.

Kill List

Making its European debut in Karlovy Vary, director Ben Wheatley’s dark British thriller proved to be one of the festival’s hard-hitting, hair-raising highlights. Two ex-soldiers turned mercenaries take up a lucrative offer to work as hit men for a shady organisation. Bad idea, especially when one of them is a borderline psychopath suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and serious anger problems. The young director previously worked on the BBC Three Johnny Vegas comedy Ideal, and there is some crossover in the cast of Kill List, but the noir-ish tone here is relentlessly downbeat and steadily more unsettling. Wheatley pulls off an audacious key change for the nightmarish final section, switching from gritty crime drama to Wicker Man-style horror. The shock twist feels like being punched hard in the face, but in a good way.

Magic Trip

The cult author Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus ride across America with his Merry Band of Pranksters in 1964, fuelled by LSD and driven by legendary speedfreak Neal Cassady, is now firmly woven into the hippie generation’s creation myth. Piecing together footage shot by Kesey and his fellow travellers, directors Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney reconstruct the journey and its historical context in this thoughtful and well-crafted documentary. As in Gibney’s portrait of Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo, the tone here is uncritically indulgent and the claims of cultural significance somewhat inflated, but the footage is priceless and the back stories fascinating - from drug-damaged freakouts and jealous spats over the sexual free-for-all on board the bus to sour cameos from a boozy Jack Kerouac and a dismissive Timothy Leary.

Tyrannosaur

Any film which opens and closes with a violent alcoholic kicking a dog to death is bound to be tough viewing, but Shane Meadows collaborator and acclaimed Brit-grit actor Paddy Considine hits the target with this powerful directing debut. A portrait of lost souls living in an unnamed British city, Tyrannosaur owes a clear stylistic debt to Ken Loach’s school of hard-knuckle social realism, but with a nod to Irvine Welsh’s brutal council-estate noir. Peter Mullan, a two-time Loach veteran, stars as a boozy bruiser clawing his way towards redemption after appointing himself guardian angel to a battered charity shop worker, played by Olivia Coleman of Peep Show fame. The ingredients may sound almost stereotypically ‘grim-up-north’, but Considine and his fine cast keep the action visceral and authentic.

Generation P

Russian cinema enjoys a strong presence at Karlovy Vary, for obvious historical reasons - it is no accident that many of the billboards and street signs here are in both Russian and German as well as Czech. The most high-profile Russian premiere at the festival was director Victor Ginzburg’s hallucinatory comedy Generation P, a lively adaptation of author Viktor Pelevin’s cult magic-realist novel about the new of breed of advertising whizzkids and political puppet-masters who came to power during Moscow’s post-Communist boom in gangster capitalism. Woven with ancient myth and LSD-fuelled hallucinations, this surreal satirical romp has some of the boisterous energy of recent Russian hits like Night Watch, but with a sprawling narrative and darkly fable-like tone reminiscent of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man.

Troll Hunter

Shot in the shaky camcorder style of The Blair Witch Project, Norwegian director Andre Ovredal’s inspired comedy-thriller mockumentary follows a trio of young student film-makers on a quest to find the notorious human-munching monsters of Nordic folklore in remote forests and mountain regions. Which they do, with hilarious but messy consequences. Troll Hunter is a witty mix of special-effects creature-feature and deadpan docu-realism, including pseudo-scientific explanations about the reasons trolls turn to stone and explode in sunlight. Meanwhile, the dramatic backdrop of majestic lakes and soaring peaks adds up to a terrific advert for the Norwegian tourist board. A true fjord fiesta, in fact.

Deconstructing Dad

A major cult figure for electronica buffs, Raymond Scott was the big-band leader, cartoon soundtrack composer and pioneering sonic explorer who invented early prototypes of the synthesizer and sequencer. He also spent much of the 1970s working for Berry Gordy at Motown on an automated music-generating computer that never worked properly, but still proved fascinating to Michael Jackson. Directed by Scott’s son Stanley J. Warnow, this film is an uneasy mix of music documentary and emotional family memoir. A worthy effort, but Scott’s overlooked canon deserves a more professional rock-doc illuminating his major significance as a precursor to the likes of Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and Aphex Twin.

Leaving

Making his feature directing debut at the age of 74, the former dissident dramatist and Czech president Vaclav Havel adapts his own 2007 stage farce, his first play in almost 20 years. Josef Abrham stars as the pompous former leader of an unnamed Central European country facing eviction from his grand government-owned mansion after falling out with the crooked new regime. Stagey and stylised and peppered with broad caricatures, Havel’s autobiographical satire earned lukewarm reviews from Czech critics. Even so, it is still a colourful and droll affair with strong overtones of Chekhov and autumnal Ingmar Bergman. Havel was too ill to attend the Karlovy Vary screening, but he makes a small cameo appearance in the film and cast his actress wife Dagmar Havlova in a main role.

Sunflower Hour

Spinal Tap meets Sesame Street in Canadian director Aaron Houston’s agreeable mockumentary about four dysfunctional puppeteers auditioning for a long-running children’s TV show. Featuring a closeted gay homophobe, a sleazy porn tycoon, a vampire-loving teen-goth girl and a mentally unbalanced faux-Irishmen with dodgy criminal connections, the comic tone is occasionally as unsettling as vintage Ricky Gervais, but mostly benign like post-Tap Christopher Guest. Slight but fun.

Backyard / We Don’t Care About Music Anyway / Vinyl: Tales from the Vienna Underground

The common ground between these three rockumentaries is that each offers a quirky insider’s guide to the music scene in their chosen city. The charming Icelandic film Backyard captures the build-up to a DIY mini-festival in Reykjavik, and includes excellent performances from various indie oddballs including mum, Hjaltalin and FM Belfast. Meanwhile, We Don’t Care About Music Anyway is a polished and poetically shot introduction to the feedback-blasting, skull-slapping, cello-smashing leaders of Tokyo’s avant-punk art-rock scene. The weakest of the three films is Vinyl, a journey through Vienna’s indie and electronica underground which is full of great noises but frustratingly low on factual context.

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