for this week’s Tribune magazine: LAWLESS [5/10] review and Wrocław film-festival report

Director: John Hillcoat

[NB: review appeared in print edition immediately after longer reviews of Tabu and The Snows of Kilimanjaro]

Just a little space left for John Hillcoat’s Prohibition-era swaggerfest Lawless, which with its prominent publicity campaign on bus-shelters and the like needs little promotion from this publication. Nor, on balance, does it much deserve same, as this self-consciously tough and violent journey into 1930s Virginia bootlegging – written and scored by Australian director Hillcoat’s frequent collaborator Nick Cave – struggles to break new ground among some notably well-travelled cinematic terrain.

The ensemble cast – including Shia LeBeouf, Tom Hardy and newcomer Jason Clarke as a bemusingly heterogenous trio of outlaw, much-fabled brothers, and Gary Oldman in an extended cameo as an underworld kingpin – work hard to keep things watchable. And no-one could begrudge Guy Pearce a long-overdue debut Oscar nomination for his superbly cadaverous/reptilian performance as an eminently-hissable FBI troubleshooter. But with the clichés piling up faster than the bodies, this blood-spattered moonshine saga proves a disappointingly mild intoxicant: as someone remarks after an unsatisfactory sip of the hard-stuff, “too much rust in the tank, maybe?”

New Horizons 2012: Wrocław Film Festival report

469 films – of varying lengths – were screened at the 12th New Horizons Film Festival, held in the western Polish city of Wrocław between 19th and 29th July. And in terms of sheer excitement none matched Mania, shown outdoors in the vast main square on a notably balmy summer evening. Crowds of eager moviegoers – most of them student-age – started assembling outside barriers well over an hour before the advertised start-time, and by the time the security guards opened up there must have been well over a thousand rushing forward in the hope of securing a seat. Younger patrons were seen vaulting into empty chairs amid scenes of jolly frenzy that recalled the riot at the end of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust.

The mania for Mania was partially explicable by the fact that hardly anyone in the audience had seen it before, and that its star was a homegrown Polish talent of international renown. But sadly there was no chance of Apolonia Chałupiec making a personal appearance – the Lipno-born actress better known as Pola Negri having gone to the great studio in the sky back in 1987 at the age of 90. One of the first wave of European talents to carve out a Hollywood career, Negri was a sensation of the 1910s and 1920s whose “colourful” private life and flair for publicity kept her in the public eye for decades after her prime.

Mania, subtitled The History of a Cigarette Factory Worker, was made in Germany in 1918 by Hungarian-born director Eugen Illes and is a somewhat creaky melodrama in which the eponymous Mania (Negri) is plucked from the shop-floor to model as the face of her employers’ brand. Romantic and tragic complications duly ensue, with Negri’s powerful sensuality retaining its edgy allure in a picture whose other elements haven’t dated nearly so well. Thought lost for nearly a century, a print of Mania turned up in a Czech film archive and received painstaking digital restoration – at the pin-sharp 4K level – thanks to the Polish Film Archive, and prints are now back in circulation featuring accompaniment by the Wrocław Chamber Orchestra. The Orchestra provided a terrific live score at the New Horizons screening, delighting those lucky souls in the seats and also those hardier types who watched the entire picture sitting on the floor.

As New Horizons’ (NH) name suggests, this is an event which is tireless in its investigation and presentation of new filmmaking talents and is thus a vital part of the European and world film-festival “jigsaw.” But under the guidance of founder/chief Roman Gutek (“a film visionary for decades… a master cultural diplomat” in the words of regular guest, Australian director Philippe Mora) and his artistic director Łapińska, NH takes a 360-degree perspective on cinema that includes generous surveys of its past. Gratfiyingly, Gutek and co retain a strong allegiance to 35mm in a period when a dismaying number of festivals take the cheap-and-easy route of screening archival titles from digitals – very seldom as satisfying as the “real thing” – and this year’s gems included tributes to Serbia’s octogenarian maverick Dušan Makavejev (Man Is Not a Bird; Montenegro) and Austrian avant-garde maestro Peter Tscherkassky (bracingly experimental shorts on 35mm, 16mm and 8mm.)

One name deserving of wider renown is Slovakian provocateur Juraj Herz, now 78, whose nightmarish 1969 feature The Cremator must rank among the darkest black comedies ever made. Built around a magnificently creepy central performance by Rudolf Hrusínský (think Philip Seymour Hoffman as John Bindon) it’s the story of a 1930s undertaker whose devotion to his craft develops into full-blown psychosis, just as much of Europe is heading in a similar direction. Available on DVD from London’s estimable Second Run, The Cremator is burningly unmissable viewing for those with a predilection for outré political allegories.

Among the newer films on offer at NH, the Polish productions were mostly an underwhelming lot – especially the much-hyped You Are God by Leszek Dawid, a would-be hard-hitting dramatisation of Katowice hip-hop threesome Paktofonika’s tragedy-truncated career that ended up more 8 Mile than Control. Despite its demerits, You Are God was one of many films which sold out in seconds via NH’s idiosyncratic web-based ticketing reservation-system. The festival attracted a total of 108,000 admissions in a metropolis of 600,000 – a Euro 2012 venue and a 2016 European City of Culture – and among the hottest tickets were, as always, some of the more notable premieres from Cannes in May. But despite their Croisette success with critics and the jury, Michael Haneke’s Amour, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone In Love and Leos Carax’ Holy Motors left this viewer somewhat cold – all will be covered over the next couple of months at the time of their UK release.

There is no sign of British distribution for three rather more deserving new pictures which proved highlights of the 12th New Horizons lineup. Musician-filmmaker Quentin Dupieux (aka Mr Oizo of ‘Flat Beat’ fame) displayed his dopey brand of sun-kissed surrealism with freewheeling California fable Wrong – a delightful and often hilarious compendium of deadpan nonsense ideal for those who find Miranda July a tad too gritty. Maite Alberdi’s mid-lengther The Lifeguard, a droll study of Chilean beach-life, meanwhile, boasts remarkably intricate sound-recording that would earn the approval of Harry Caull from Coppola’s The Conversation and profitably explores the tricky water-lines between documentary and fiction.

James Benning’s work has often been praised on these pages and his latest landscape study Small Roads shows that he has lost little of his inspiration or uncompromising integrity as he enters his eighth decade and continues his explorations of digital cameras (after several decades honing his craft via 16mm). Four dozen backwaters and byways of the continental United States are observed with unblinking, quiet concentration – no voiceover, no music, no dialogue – in a graceful and cumulatively spellbinding salute to some enchanting but easily overlooked “sights.”

Such a shame, then, that the Wrocław projections of Small Roads were marred by excessively low volume – though at least the image was sufficiently bright. The biggest problem afflicting NH 12 was the darkness of the digital image at the multi-screen Helios cinema which is the main venue – one which was noticeable and distracting throughout the festival despite repeated complaints from your indefatigable correspondent. Presumably whatever was technically amiss will be rectified in time for next July’s jamboree – thus ensuring a “lucky” 13th for all.

Neil Young
29th August, 2012
written for Tribune magazine