Tuesday, 26 February 2013

GFF Festival Diary #3: Final Day!

From a personal point of view, there’s a slightly bittersweet feel to the final day of the film festival. Very soon, I realise, tough quandaries like whether to watch a movie at a barn dance or an empty underground station will seem but a distant memory. As a result, even before the red carpet’s rolled away I’m in a reflective mood, with several films standing out from the sea of celluloid consumed in the last 10 days. There’s no space here to do all justice, so I’ll extend salutes to just a handful. Having missed opening gala Populaire, the following afternoon’s showing of Beyond the Hills was my first screening of the festival, and it set a formidably high benchmark for everything that followed. Of the handful that approached its brilliance, two eponymously titled tales with impressive greenhorn leads deserve mention: Wadjda, which acquired interest via its notable production context but kept it by virtue of director Haifaa al-Mansour’s lightness of touch and 10-year-old Waad Mohammed’s cocksure central performance; and the haunting Lore, an unsettling portrait of a young girl coming to terms with her Nazi upbringing amidst the terrible (often sexual) violence of the Second World War’s closing act. But in the end, it took a religious drama of a very different denomination to replace Beyond the Hills’s orthodox convent drama as my festival highlight, with the Cathedral screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc already celebrated at length in a previous blog piece. To recap: it was really, really good.

I begin the closing day with Blancanieves – a silent, black and white telling of the Snow White story set in 1920s Spain, which bolsters copious style with some genuine substance. Despite its crowd-pleasing sense of humour and á la mode pastiche aesthetic (not to mention a huge haul of Goya awards and a scene-stealing, bandana-wearing rooster by the name of Pepe), this quirky take on Grimm material has somehow yet to secure UK distribution – a state of affairs we hope is remedied soon, even if it did lend a frisson of added exclusivity to this one-off sold-out showing.

My next selection – glossy UK crime thriller Welcome to the Punch has no such distribution issues, with moody posters advertising its impending release already emblazoning buses. The sense of occasion this time comes from seeing it first, with this afternoon’s screening constituting a world premiere. After a short foreword from producer Rory Aitken in which he swiftly thanks the project’s 'jigsaw puzzle of financers' (including an exec role for Ridley Scott), director Eran Creevy bounds front-of-screen to introduce his London-set take on the Hong Kong action thrillers he’d grown up obsessing over. As well as the likes of Ringo Lam and John Woo, a closer-to-home inspiration is singled out and paid tribute, with ‘what would Tony Scott do?’ apparently the crew’s on-set doctrine. These flashy influences shine through in the end result, which trots out every cliché in the book – maverick cop on the edge, criminal with a conscience – but does so with enough flair and tension that it’s hard not to forgive its trespasses. The opening Canary Wharf set-piece, in which James McAvoy’s hardnosed bobby pursues Mark Strong’s sharp-suited thief and winds up shot, is particularly impressive, establishing the film’s slick visual appeal and charged pace. In the Q&A session that follows, Aitken explains the difficulties in getting access to London’s financial district, noting that the last time the powers-that-be granted such permissions, the film in question was Basic Instinct 2, 'and they weren’t thrilled with the outcome'. Luckily for Aitken, Welcome to the Punch’s 'aspirational' high-style and patent ambition helped secure two days of closed-off filming, applying an extra layer of polish to the film’s gleaming vision of the capital. Peter Mullan – who plays Strong’s right-hand man – joins Aitken and Creevy for the post-film discussion, expressing delight at the audience’s response to a particular improvised line ('I’ve always wanted to say that in a film!') and praising his director for his enthusiasm and openness to ideas. He’s not kidding about Creevy’s enthusiasm, the director breathlessly detailing sequel ideas, naming Trading Places his desert island flick and putting his hat in the ring for the next Batman reboot, all with a giddying but likeable degree of earnestness.

Finally, we come to Much Ado about Nothing, which caused so much ado upon announcement that its principal GFT screening is long sold out and we’re forced to settle for the back-up showing at Cineworld. Every pair of digits in the room is firmly crossed that director Joss Whedon will pop along Renfrew Street and grace us with his presence, but sadly it’s not to be. Still, his bardic home movie is a satisfying finale in and of itself, with a cast of Whedonverse favourites having fun with one of Shakespeare’s frothier yarns. There’s something intrinsically appealing about a commercially ascendant filmmaker following a billion-grossing tentpole with something so low budget, but what’s truly impressive is that the film never feels slipshod or indulgent (well, not overly so at least). The acting is first rate, making you wonder why some of these people get relatively little film work from other sources, with Nathan Fillian’s bloated Dogberry snagging the loudest titters and Sean Maher’s reptilian Don John just about eclipsing memories of a dungeon-dwelling, leather-trousered Keanu Reeves. Alas, rumours of a post-credit sequence in which Hamlet, Falstaff and Oberon turn up to recruit Benedick to do battle against evil forces are, it transpires, absolute poppycock.

And with that, we bid the festival adieu, and start counting down the days to the general release of Spring Breakers, so we can find out first-hand what all the blooming fuss is about.

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