Manchester International Film Festival – Day 1 & 2

In the first of a short series of reviews from this year’s Manchester International Film Festival, we cover days 1 and 2 of the festival…

The festival opens with an opening night gala premiere for Traumfabrik, a romantic drama set in Berlin in 1961 (and France many years later), directed by Martin Schreier, who was on hand to answer questions at the end. Credit where credit is due: Traumfabrik looks wonderful. It has the broad romantic sweep of Titanic combined with the slightly tongue in cheek behind the scenes quality of Singing in the Rain. The leads – Emilia Schule as Milou and Dennis Mojen as Emil – are suitably bright and bushy-tailed (Schule is as gamine as Audrey Tatou in Amelie and Mojen smoulders like a young DiCaprio), and setting a broad strokes boy-meets-girl rom com against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall’s first appearance feels risky enough to give proceedings an edgy frisson. It’s not without its problems, though: it’s overlong, for one thing, it’s a little cliched (a boy-meets-girl rom com has to work hard to avoid the pitfalls of a genre that is by any stretch of the imagination long in the tooth – and Traumfabrik doesn’t work hard enough in this regard), a little fake (in the Absolute Beginners ‘every scene looks like it was filmed on a set’ kind of way) and a bit cheesy. But if you liked Titanic you’ll probably think it’s great.

Our next stop was shorts – particularly Shorts Session 1 & 2, where we saw 12 films that lived up to the International flavour of the festival – we saw films from France (‘Nico’, ‘Sweepers’), we saw films from Austria (‘Beyond’), we saw films from the UK (‘From This Day Forward’, ‘This is English’) and we saw films from the US (‘Adams’, ‘Bad Assistant’). One of the great joys of watching short films packaged together for your edification and delight is that if you don’t like one, you don’t have to worry too much because there will be another along in a minute. We’ll just concentrate here on the films that we got a massive kick out of: Tom Stern’s ‘Adams’, which starred Patton Oswalt and Portlandia’s Fred Armisen and was an adaptation of George Saunders’ short story that first appeared back in The New Yorker in 2004, a high-octane, highly funny tale of neighbourly disenchantment; Karel van Bellingen’s ‘From This Day Forward’, a beautifully shot love story starring Sheila Hancock which told the story of a wife’s attempts to ease her husband’s passage from this world; the hilarious ‘This is English’ which focused on a secret underground gang busy correcting errant apostrophes; and ‘Bad Assistant’, in which Jason Schwartzman plays a supremely egotistical film star, fresh from bagging a starring role in a new Marvel type movie who forces his put upon assistant to help move his friend’s dead body because… you know… a corpse being found in his house would rather ruin his day.

Appetite whetted from watching 12 short films in a row, we made our way to Lost Transmissions, something of a departure for its star, Simon Pegg, who plays Theo, a music producer with a history of schizophrenia. The film takes us from schmoozy parties with friends via a sort of Star is Born narrative (featuring Juno Temple as a young wannabe singer-songwriter) into a dogged Leaving Las Vegas style trawl through psychotic episodes and homelessness and upset. It’s a hard watch and no mistaking, both because its subject matter feels quite raw but also because – and there’s no nice way to put this – it’s not a very good film. We know from the outset that what we are watching is based on a true story, and Lost Transmissions undoubtedly has a ring of authenticity about it, not least in the way that Pegg’s character can quickly switch from angrily ranting about why he needs to contact the Princess of Time to rationally explaining how the people around him misunderstood his latest outburst. Speaking afterwards, Pegg explained what drew him to the part was quite simply that he doesn’t tend to get offered these kinds of roles and it also presented him with the first opportunity in twenty plus years of acting in films of working with a female director, both of which are laudable. The problem is that Lost Transmissions seems to tangibly demonstrate the limits of what Pegg can do (this is not Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Robin Williams in Awakenings), and so there is an awful lot of rather over the top emoting. This, in turn, rather distances you from the film at a time when your sympathy for the character of Theo should be growing. By the time you stumble over the grizzled climax, you’ve been looking at your watch for a half an hour and wishing the whole enterprise be done.

Coming soon: Requiem for a Dream, Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago, Memento, Le Champion and Sweethearts.

by Peter Wild

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