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Karlovy Vary: First Report
Posted on Monday July 6, 2009, 13:29 by Damon Wise

The Karlovy Vary film festival is in full swing. I arrived here on Friday for the opening night screening of Shana Feste's The Greatest (pictured), which, sadly, wasn't. It's a bizarre film to open a festival with, since it's downbeat drama about grief and the death of a loved one, in this case Bennett (Aaron Johnson), whose parents (Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon) take in his pregnant lover Rose (Carey Mulligan) after she turns up on their doorstep. As you can tell from the synopsis, there's a lot of acting in this film, especially from Pierce Brosnan, who attacks the script like an alcoholic on a five-day bender. Sadly, the script feels a little too much like an actor's workshop, with lots of powerful, emotive scenes and not enough narrative glue. Surprisingly, newcomer Mulligan holds her own against Brosnan and Sarandon, and it can't hurt her already rising profile (she's also in Lone Scherfig's An Education, which is great). And I kept wondering for ages who the boy was, until I realised that Johnson is a) a Brit and b) the star of Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass. I think he has a bright future; even though he doesn't get a lot do here, he has presence.

After The Greatest, I saw Paul Schrader's latest, Adam Resurrected, which, if nothing else, proves what a great thing it is that Jeff Goldblum isn't dead after all. Although the film is very uneven and overly literary, with a script that borders on self-parody at times, it's a fantastic reminder of what a great physical talent Goldblum has. He plays Adam, a recovering Holocaust survivor who has been sent to a mental health clinic in a remote part of Israel. Adam is a former Weimar entertainer who was big in his day, but when he and his family are sent to a concentration camp, Adam is taken aside by his biggest fan, Klein (Willem Dafoe), a camp commandant who literally keeps Adam for his own amusement. Made to walk on all fours, he becomes Klein's pet, sharing scraps with the dog, trying in vain (but not very hard) to rescue his wife and two daughters. If it sounds a bit silly, it is, but Goldblum just about pulls it off – and Dafoe looks suitably menacing in a Nazi outfit.

From Spain comes Albert Arizza's Ramirez, a serial-killer thriller that looked quite ropey (it was a bad projection from a DVD, I think) but strangely held my attention. Ramirez himself is a drug dealer from Madrid who has a sideline in murder; one is a prostitute, another is a party girl trying to find a cab, another is a gay guy who picks him up in a bar... There's no logic, except that Ramirez does weird pop-art portraits of his victims, which he doesn't seem all that interested in either. On paper, it sounds like another naïve genre movie, but there are some excellent flourishes, particularly in the characters that Ramirez meets. It's also bold stylistically; Arizza plays games with sound and silence to very creepy effect. The final scene is one of the oddest and most disturbing I've seen for a while, even though I can't even begin to think why. It's all drawn from the same, dark Latin well that gave us Chile's Tony Manero, and it ultimately transcends its very low (50,000 euros) budget.

A documentary from Spain caught my eye too. Called Diary Of An Affiliate, it's another cheap but ambitious project that tells the story of Antonio Perrone, a university student from a respectable middle-class family, who, in the 1980s, became a founding member of the mafia-style organisation known as the Sacred Heart Union. If Gomorra piqued your curiosity, this short but entertaining film will remind you that truth is often stranger than fiction. Perrone, a kind of Italian Henry Hill (except that he is currently serving out a 49-year sentence), emerges as an oddly sympathetic, even poetic figure, and his diaries form the backbone of the piece, which traces his rise and fall from gentleman drug dealer to armed robber and public enemy number one.

From Denmark comes Martin Pieter Zandvliet's Applause, a melancholy portrayal of a woman's mental collapse inspired, I think, by John Cassavetes' Closing Night. Starring the amazing Paprika Steen, it focuses on a fading stage star who, during a successful run of Who's Afraid Of Virgina Woolf, battles with her ex-husband over custody of her two kids. Though there are other actors, this is Steen's show, and she really puts everything into it. She arguably pulls herself together a little too quickly at times for a woman who, like another Cassavetes heroine, is often under the influence, but this is a brave and fearless performance that had me wondering: why isn't Steen a bigger international star? Though it's really a small, niche, indie movie, Applause could be the film that finally brings her to the world stage.

Coming soon: two films I should have seen in Edinburgh – the mighty Sin Nombre and the very, very funny Black Dynamite...

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