The 8th Annual Zurich Film Festival

The 8th annual Zurich Film Festival screened 100-plus features and documentaries at a variety of theatres in Switzerland’s largest city from Sept. 20-30.  Unlike its southern Swiss counterpart — August’s renowned Locarno Film Festival, which stresses international cinema, premieres and open air screenings — ZFF presents Hollywood movies and stars, as well as European, South American, African and Asian film fare with flair.

Oliver Stone’s hard hitting drug war drama Savages kicked off the 10 day filmfest at a September 20 gala premiere, preceded by a press conference with co-star John Travolta in the Baur au Lac, an elegant five star hotel overlooking scenic Lake Zurich and the Alps.  (To read my coverage of the controversial antiwar remarks by Stone and Travolta at their news conference see:  Travolta was also awarded ZFF’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Golden Eye, and a retrospective of his hits, including Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Pulp Fiction and Primary Colors were screened throughout the Festival, mostly at Filmpodium, Zurich’s repertory cinema, a film buff’s dream that is similar to Hollywood’s Egyptian.

Richard Gere was also on hand for Switzerland’s gala premiere of the Wall Street thriller Arbitrage and to accept ZFF’s Golden Icon Award.  Six other Gere films, including Days of Heaven, American Gigolo, The Cotton Club and Pretty Woman, were also presented.  Gere was joined by Arbitrage co-star Susan Sarandon at a press conference at the Baur au Lac, where Helen Hunt, the leading lady of The Sessions, also held court for the international press corps.  Like the other aforementioned Hollywood talents, Hunt walked the red carpet (actually called the “green carpet” in the eco-conscious Alpine nation) at the gala premiere of The Sessions.

“Master Classes” were presented at the Filmpodium by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (his Oscar winning A Separation was shown during ZFF), screenwriter/director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption was screened) and Jerry Weintraub.  The Hollywood producer also received ZFF’s Career Achievement Award on his 75th birthday, while eight of the movies he produced, including Nashville, Diner, The Karate Kid original and remake, and Steven Soderbergh’s three Oceans flicks were shown.  German helmer Tom Tykwer likewise presented a Master Class and was paid tribute to by ZFF, which presented him with a Golden Eye and screened about five of his films, including Run Lola Run and the European premiere of Nairobi Half Life.

The most common lament among the throngs of ticket buyers was that there were so many movies that one couldn’t possibly see them all.  At least the Festival screenings didn’t stop projection halfway through the pictures in order to induce audience members to buy goodies at the concession stands, which is common at Swiss cinemas (along with $20-plus tickets).  Here, in no particular order, are capsule reviews of works your far-flung reviewer saw at the Zurich Film Festival:

EL ULTIMO ELVIS (The Last Elvis) — Who knew?  Even South America has Elvis impersonators, as this Argentine movie co-written and directed by Armando Bo, who has a screenwriting credit for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 2010 Biutiful, reveals. John McInerny, an actual Presley tribute artist, portrays Carlos Gutierrez, an assembly line worker by day and King of Rock ’n’ Roll wannabe at night.  In this Spanish language movie Carlos’ renditions of “Unchained Melody,” “Suspicious Minds,” etc., are actually performed in English.  When asked why he’s obsessed with Elvis, Carlos replies: “Because god gave me his voice.”

Carlos tellingly resembles the crooner during his final “fat Elvis” days, cheesy jumpsuits and all, as Carlos tries to balance his fantasy life with the real world and familial responsibilities.  Separated from his pretty wife Alejandra (Griselda Siciliani), Carlos makes a stab at reconnecting with her, as well as with their daughter — named, but of course, Lisa Marie (Margarita Lopez).  Following a traumatic incident, Carlos steps up to the plate as a responsible family man and the father and daughter start to bond.  It seems as if he’s finally embracing reality and rejecting a fantasy world that finds him hobnobbing with John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Alice Cooper impersonators and rocking out at old folks’ homes for chump change.  But as the title suggests, El Ultimo Elvis zigs when you think it will zag, with an OMG! ending straight out of left field.  Bo’s feature directorial debut makes a powerful comment about the exploitation of artists and our celebrity driven culture (even way down Argentine way) and fixation with it.  McInerny delivers a sensitive, poignant performance — as well as belting out a number of the King’s greatest hits.  

AM HIMMEL DER TAG (Breaking Horizons) — One can interpret this German film by Pola Beck as being yet another in the primeval tradition wherein “bad” girls (i.e., promiscuous females) are punished for their sexual sins.  Lara (Aylin Tezel) is a wildly irresponsible petit bourgeois 25-year-old who behaves more like she’s 17.  The spoiled Lara lives in her own apartment, paid for, but of course, by mommy and daddy.  She and gal pal Nora (Henrike von Kuick) are architecture students by day, party girls by night.  In a jealous pique, Lara drops what appears to be Ecstasy at a nightclub and proceeds to have unprotected sex with a total stranger.

Lara doesn’t contract AIDs, but her ensuing pregnancy forces her to be confronted by reality.  Undecided about whether or not to have an abortion, she apparently decides to turn over a new leaf and to keep the child growing within her.  But complications ensue with her “delicate condition”; perhaps Lara’s “wicked, wicked” ways catch up with her.  In any case, true to form, she reverts to her old irresponsible self.  Unlike most movies, there is no resolution of conflict in Am Himmel der Tag — Lara does not end up with her neighbor Elvar (Tomas LeMarquis), an Icelandic aspiring sculptor and interesting character, nor with Martin (Godehard Giese), the architecture teacher wooing Nora.  Lara does not go on to live happily ever after, and at the end this “loose woman” remains at loose ends.  Beck’s feature debut is auspicious; despite its “Jezebel” connotations condemning “painted women” to punishment, Am Himmel der Tag is a well acted, realistic slice of 21st century life.

KING KELLY — This lighter American movie about a wannabe e-porn star may also suffer from the “Jezebel syndrome.”  In Andrew Neel’s feature debut Kelly (Louisa Krause) is a feckless, somewhat attractive aspiring adult Internet star.  King Kelly opens with a topless Kelly masturbating online with reckless abandon using sex toys, as her customers, including Poo Bare (Roderick Hill), post salaciously droll comments on the website, cheering her on to orgasm.  Kelly’s sidekick Jordan (Libby Woodbridge) shoots her hanky spanky hi-jinks with a webcam, while Kelly’s unsuspecting parents have no idea that their daughter’s bedroom doubles as a cybersex studio.  Is this ultimate ditzy blonde another sexually active woman who will end up being punished for her wild ways?

As Kelly prepares for a July 4th special and the much anticipated launch of her very own website, she embarks on an odyssey from what appears to be upstate New York to Staten Island that ensnares her in a drug deal gone bad, extreme partying, police brutality and a series of zany, substance-fuelled misadventures.  Finding herself in ever deeper trouble during her road trip, Kelly reaches out to number one fan Poo Bare, a state trooper who comes to the rowdy pornster’s raucous rescue.  Poo is ecstatic to meet the erotic personality he is fixated on and fantasizes about in the flesh, while Kelly is surprised that Poo is rather buff, and not obese and pimply, as she’d imagined.  But their sexual encounter ends up with one of moviedom’s more memorable coitus interruptus scenes.  There is also a liquor store scene where the imbecilic, drug and drink addled protagonist casually mistakes a Sikh storekeeper for an Islamic terrorist, which is redolent of last summer’s mass shooting of Sikhs at a temple by a neo-Nazi.

What makes King Kelly especially interesting is its inventive, cinematic style that emulates e-porn and webcam techniques, as Kelly and Jordon document everything with their hand held cell phones, mini-cams, etc., Net style.  This film’s form enhances its content, as it captures the essence of online pornography and how much of it is created and presented live in real time in an interactive manner with digital technology.  (Although there’s no genitalia seen onscreen, which is a prudish cop out for a movie about an adult performer).  In terms of features, it’s a new way of seeing.

Does the brash bad girl get her comeuppance, Jezebel style?  You’ll have to find out for yourself.  At the end wacky Kelly observes that she’s “all alone,” but then boasts she’ll post her entire adventure, which she has chronicled, because “it’s all true” (which is also the name of a doc about Orson Welles’ shooting of an unfinished film shot on location in 1940s Brazil).  Beneath it all, the would-be porn star is a 21st century Robert Flaherty, a documentarian in a feature that, among other things, acerbically and humorously comments on reality TV, low budge indie filmmaking and our celebrity obsessed, sexually hung up culture.

END OF WATCH — In End of Watch David Ayer — the screenwriter of 2001’s Training Day, which nabbed the Best Actor Oscar for Denzel Washington’s portrayal of a corrupt cop — returns to the scene of the crime.  Like King Kelly, writer/director Ayer’s latest LAPD drama also creatively utilizes and replicates today’s new digital high tech, low budge videography via an officer’s omnipresent handheld video camera, minicams and surveillance cameras.  (This usually rankles the men in blue and plainclothesmen being recorded, who perhaps remember how George Holliday’s video of the LAPD beating of Rodney King provided irrefutable evidence for all the world to see — except, of course, for a certain jury in Simi Valley).  But instead of King Kelly’s aspiring porn star, in Watch it’s two police partners documenting their actions in the ’hood, south of L.A.’s Mason-Dixon Line (the 10 Freeway).

As Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña convincingly portray rookie cops, whose unorthodox, gung ho tactics and heroics make a name for themselves, garnering attention not only from the Department, but from the bad guys.  The latter are mainly members of a Latino gang of extremely badass banditos tied in with Mexican drug cartels, co-led by the aptly named Wicked (Diamonique), a vicious lesbian who constantly eggs the hombres on to commit deeds of mayhem in this extremely violent movie (which — like Savages –troubled audiences in neutral Switzerland with its over the top violence).  When Brian and Mike stumble upon a human trafficking ring and operation in an extremely harrowing scene, they become marked men marking time.

Although the notion that LAPD is gallant seems like science fiction that stretches credulity, what makes Watch especially effective is the interracial friendship between Caucasian Brian and Chicano Mike, as well as between the latter’s wife, advice-dispensing Gabby (Natalie Martinez), and the former’s sweetheart, Janet (the Twilight series’ Anna Kendrick).  Their four-way friendship and bonding is touching and provides much of this movie’s humor and human touch.  The acting is also top notch, including by America Ferrara — the Ugly Betty star is almost unrecognizable as the tough LAPD officer Orozco.  And Diamonique is particularly chilling as the Lady MacBeth-like Wicked.  Watch’s view of race relations, which (like the Trayvon Martin execution) pits Blacks against Hispanics — who appear to be displacing African Americans in South Central and as the largest U.S. minority group — is as cutting edge an observation as Ayer’s camerawork is edgy.  After the cinema’s umpteenth movie car chase, End of Watch has found a film form to make its onscreen exploits look fresh.

KAPRINGEN (A Hijacking) — Shiver me timbers: Contemporary incidents of piracy on the high seas provide fertile material for modern day Blackbeards, Captain Kidds and Captain Jack Sparrows.  Danish director Tobias Lindholm has made a sort of 21st century version of those Errol Flynn swashbucklers, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, as a cargo ship owned by a firm in Denmark is hijacked not in the West Indies, but in the Indian Ocean.  This realistic thriller cuts from the crew, who are held hostage, and their captors, as they languish aboard the freighter, to the CEO of the shipping company that owns the Rozen back in what seems to be Copenhagen, who attempt to negotiate a settlement to the stalemate.

A tautly drawn drama that doesn’t dwell on physical violence but highlights psychological pressure, Kapringen focuses on CEO Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) and ship’s cook Mikkel Hartmann (Johan Philip Asbæk, who appeared in 2010’s Oscar winning The Whistleblower), and the toll the long drawn out ordeal exacts on both men, as well as on their families, and the rest of the shipmates. In his dealings with the buccaneers Peter is advised by a piracy expert portrayed, Neo-Realist style, by a real life maritime security professional, Gary Skjoldmose Porter.

The otherwise excellent feature fails to provide motivations and backgrounds for the Somali brigands, just as the Horn of Africa characters in the racist Somalia-set 2001 propaganda picture Black Hawk Down were similarly one dimensional.  Why these Somalis fly the proverbial skull and crossbones is never explained.  However, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the Somali translator Peter haggles with via long distance calls and faxes, is humanized.  Omar resents being considered a pirate; because of his expertise in English, he has simply been recruited to do an important job.  One of Peter’s fellow corporate officers, Lars Vestergaard, has a key role in resolving the dispute, and is portrayed by nonwhite actor Dar Salim, who plays Qotho in HBO’s Game of Thrones, and reportedly has Danish nationality but was born in Baghdad.  Despite the curious omission regarding what makes the Somali privateers tick, Kapringen is a well-directed, well-acted look at a crime that is ripped from the proverbial headlines, yet as old as “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest — yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.”

ARBITRAGE — Although writer/director Nicholas Jarecki’s Wall Street thriller was one of the Zurich Film Festival’s Gala Premieres, I saw it at a press screening across the road from ZFF’s HQ, situated in temporary tent-like structures setup in front of the 19th century Opera House, at a theatre in the Corso multiplex adorned by posters of Gone With the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Casablanca and other Bogie pix.  In Arbitrage, Richard Gere — who, as noted, was honored at the filmfest — plays Robert Miller, a supposed financial whiz, dealmeister and family man who graces the cover of mags like Forbes (or was it Fortune?).  But all is not as it seems: The putative Master of the Universe is committing fraud, as well as adultery, and seems on the brink of financial and familial disaster.

When his affair with gallery dealer Julie Cote (French actress Laetitia Casta, who has previously portrayed Brigitte Bardot) literally blows up, the wheeler dealer enlists African American Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker) who owes him one to save his bacon.  But as Sir Walter Scott rather famously put it: “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” NYPD Detective Michael Bryer is immediately onto Miller, and — like Charles Ferguson, the Oscar winning director of Inside Job and author of Predator Nation — is completely fed up with Wall Street scoundrels getting away with serious crimes and misdemeanors.  Bryer begins to sniff Miller out and hound him like an Inspector Javert on steroids.  Complications ensue, as Miller desperately tries to conceal his ties to Julie and her fate in order to head off the whiff of scandal that could erupt as he tries to seal one last final deal. Meanwhile, wifey (a scheming Susan Sarandon) is not as stupid as her philandering hubby thinks, and turns the tables on Robert.

The problem with Arbitrage — a financial term that essentially means buying something at a lower price than one can then turn around and sell at a higher cost — is that it loses sight of its financial sector pedigree and devolves more often than not into a routine crime melodrama — as if the flicker and TV shows don’t have enough of that.  In this day and age of Occupy Wall Street and the smoldering national outrage against the Robert Miller rip off artists of the world, one would think that like, say 2010’s Inside Job and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, or 2011’s Too Big To Fail and Margin Call, Jarecki’s script would have focused on the financial sector aspects of the protagonist’s wrongdoing.  Nevertheless, Arbitrage has interesting things to say about Black-white relations through the Jimmy-Robert subplot and has a great ending highlighting the false acclaim accorded to the free enterprise system’s supposed “job creators,” who are really just greedy pigs who want to have it all, at everyone else’s expense.  Arbitrage is a well-acted, deftly directed feature by Nicholas Jarecki, whose brothers Eugene and Andrew are noteworthy doc directors.     

Combining the allure of Hollywood glitz and glamour, combined with European and World Cinema artistry, the Zurich Film Festival is establishing itself as major continental film venue for studio features, indies and documentaries alike.  And why not?  Despite the country’s diminutive size, Swiss cinema has a venerable motion picture patrimony.  While Jean-Luc Godard is generally regarded as French, the fact is that he is of mixed French and Swiss heritage, grew up much of the time in Switzerland during the war, and has lived at the Swiss canton of Vaud since the 1970s.  Switzerland is also the land where Charlie Chaplin spent the last 30 or so years of his life, and his mansion at Vevey near Lake Geneva is scheduled to become a movie museum in 2013 to honor the Little Tramp who found refuge in the land of the Alps.

For more Zurich Film Festival info see:

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