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KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic - "All of this... for some movies?" The line -- spoken by a fellow critic, mind -- was tinged not with contempt, but genuine astonishment. We were standing on the humming, uplit terrace of the Grand Hotel Pupp, the largest and swankiest of many large and swanky hotels in the sequestered Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary, gazing out at the bewilderingly lavish party not much laid as frosted on for the opening night of the town's 47th annual film festival.
Inside, several hundred champagne-marinated guests filled the hotel's five vast banquet rooms, straying only a gentle distance from a vast buffet -- of which a five-foot tuna laid on ice and getting surgically sashimi'ed was a mere sideshow. Somewhere downstairs, Helen Mirren -- honored for her contribution to European cinema at the festival's opening ceremony earlier in the evening -- and assorted Czech politicos lived it up in a presumably gilded VIP lounge: perhaps their tuna was even larger, their pancake station a queue-free affair. (Yes, all film festivals from here on out should have a pancake station.) I have yet to see a festival bash even half as shiny; it made the charmingly beery ceilidhs of the Edinburgh Film Festival last week look wattle-and-daub-esque by comparison.
Yes, all of this had been put on for some movies -- but after two days at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, it's clear they think the movies are worth it. A generously selected programme runs the gamut from rough-and-ready Eastern European world premieres to a comprehensive highlights package of the Cannes just gone to a tasty retrospective of Jean-Pierre Melville.
Better still, screenings are routinely packed to the gills, as high-spirited hordes of vacationing civilian film buffs are encouraged to queue for standby seats. Outside the festival center -- the concrete high-rise slab of the Thermal Hotel, a surreally brutalist imposition on the centuries-old wedding-cake architecture that dominates this pretty, river-split town -- live bands play, beer stands prosper and temperatures soar past 90 degrees. It's perhaps the most festive film festival I've yet visited -- one that, however customarily stacked with sober, serious-minded independent fare, is committed to selling cinema as a good time. I like.
Admittedly, the first two films I saw didn't seem quite equal to the accompanying spirit of celebration. The festival's official, rather incongruous curtain-raiser was almost comically modest in relation to the festivities that followed its premiere: Irish-made and BBC-funded, Lisa Barros D'Sa's and Glenn Leyburn's period rock biopic "Good Vibrations" (C+) would have been a likelier fit for Edinburgh, but its rowdy if somewhat over-sweetened rebel yell was greeted with good humor by an audience that likely, for the most part, had no idea who John Peel was.
Peel, the late, beloved British radio DJ who for many years was unmatched as a tastemaker and talent-spotter on the UK rock scene, is a side character in "Good Vibrations," which fixates on the more specialized subject of the Belfast punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Beyond birthing one of the greatest pop songs of all time -- pause now to download The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks" if it's somehow skipped your radar -- it's not remembered as a particularly forceful wave. Inasmuch as it was a scene at all, however, it existed thanks to Terri Hooley, an affable, bloke-y and impractically passionate record store owner turned independent label founder, signing bands based on a music lover's whims rather than any business acumen, and enjoying all the commercial success that implies... which is to say his label went bust before the 1980s did.
It's hard not to like a biopic that employs a traditionally triumphant arc in service of a character most Hollywood script editors would deem a failure, and the dirtily shot, structurally rambunctious "Good Vibrations" is a heartfelt valentine to triers everywhere. But as boisterous as it is, this cautiously audience-tooled film lacks true punk spirit, not to mention a specific sense of the political frictions that bled into, or out of, the music during Ireland's Troubles. Richard Dormer's gregarious performance conveys Hooley's force of personality more than his personality itself; it may well be that the disconnect is appropriate, but it's easier to care about Jodie Whittaker as his finitely supportive wife. Punk and Irish blarney wind up not entirely serving each other here, but maybe that was Hooley's problem all along.
However insubstantial, "Good Vibrations" was still a necessary tonic after my first press screening of the festival, a selection from its homegrown strand. "Made in Ash" (C), an almost gleefully grim Czech-Slovak drama of social iniquities, is so unlikely to travel far beyond its own angrily regarded borders that I shan't dwell on it too extensively. One of a global breed of earnest, festival-targeted dramas content to proficiently hammer one doomy note from first shot to last, it tells the not-unaffecting story of Dorota, a means-free Slovak high-school graduate who heads to a deadbeat Czech-German border town in search of employment.
Unlike the postgrad studies we're used to, this one features less Alexis Bledel and more sweatshop labor and venereal disease from other people's grandfathers; hard stuff, yes, and unhappily authentic, but it's still easier to pity the blankly weepy Dorota than it is to care about her. Debuting writer-director Iveta Grofova's has an eye and an ear for decaying social fabric, but also a weakness for metaphors so pointedly ironic they scarcely qualify as irony: when the camera lands on a nightclub sign labelled "Happy End" in the film's closing stages, you don't have to be Barthes to sense the film swinging the other way.
More rewarding low-fi melancholy was to be found this morning in the only American film I've seen at the fest so far: Adele Romanski's small, sunbleached debut feature, "Leave Me Like You Found Me" (B+) premiered at SXSW in March, where some critics might have been too quick to dismiss it as mumblecore noodling with landscapes. What I saw was a tender, confidently bare relationship drama, largely in control of its narrative's negative space and the yawing, yawning feelings that fill them. Romanski is best known in the indie sector for producing David Robert Mitchell's lovely "The Myth of the American Sleepover," and her own directorial miniature shares that film's soft-lit sense of Polaroid heartbreak.
Coincidentally enough, "Leave Me Like You Found Me" follows another recent US film, Julia Loktev's excellent "The Loneliest Planet," in using a camping trip as the catalyst for a couple's dissolution; if we're to take just one thing away from this potential double-bill, it's that lovers might well be better off splashing out on the honeymoon suite. The difference here is that the split is already in the past tense: casual Californian semi-hipsters Cal (David Nordstrom) and Erin (Megan Goode) have been officially apart for over a year, and are marking their recent reconciliation with a testing-the-waters vacation to the Sequoia National Park.
Early, cuddly rekindlings, however, swiftly give way to fraught squabbles that eventually tip over into that which cannot be unsaid: as they (and we) wonder what brought them together again, the couple's reunion serves both as a post-mortem of their initial break-up, and an all-too-conceivable blueprint of the one to come. Given that neither party is notably more sympathetic than the other, you could question the stakes of Romanski's emphatically small narrative, but her writing contains gently incisive suggestions of what needs and insecurities bind us even to the most imperfect of relationships. "I want to be the one who stops loving you," Erin whispers to Cal, fearful of him beating her to the punch. Intuitively played by its two leads, and exquisitely shot by James Laxton and Jay Keitel -- their airy, wheaten vistas increasingly a cruel retort to the renewed romance that isn't -- this is unassumingly wise independent filmmaking.
More to come from Karlovy Vary, including thoughts on a superb Cannes catch-up title, "Our Children," and Variety's sidebar of 10 European Directors To Watch, two of whose screenings I'll be introducing at the festival on Monday. All this, yes, for some movies.
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