The Karlovy Vary Film Festival is a rewardingly contradictory one. The locale is pure chocolate-box fragility: a bijou spa town in the densely wooded hills of the Czech republic, its buildings appear frosted by professional patissieres. The atmosphere, meanwhile, is more robustly rowdy: wealthy neighboring Russians populate the busy party circuit as cinema-loving students descend on the town by the busload, open-air bars surrounding the festival center dispensing rivers of Pilsner all the while. Neither the setting nor the crowds, meanwhile, immediately suggest the festival”s diverse, tough-minded programming, which trades largely in bleaker realities – or more challenging fantasies, as the case may be.
More than many festivals its size, Karlovy Vary”s film selection is keenly curated as opposed to merely cobbled-together – so I realize that it”s looking a gift horse in the mouth to lead off my coverage with what is, by several yards, the worst film there. But Mark Steven Johnson”s mangy dogs-of-war thriller “Killing Season” (D-), which played as part of Karlovy Vary”s career achievement tribute to John Travolta, is not only the starriest of the fest”s otherwise discerningly chosen world premieres, but it”s also the one coming soonest to a theater (or, indeed, a laptop screen) near you. (Next week, in fact – though no one would blame you for waiting.) Not a festival film by any stretch of the imagination, this drably gory B-movie is best viewed as a necessary evil: a Hollywood attraction dangled to bait uncertain festivalgoers into the more exotic, more exciting reaches of a rich lineup. I”ll do likewise.
Travolta was on hand to introduce the film to a heaving crowd in the festival”s concrete-chic flagship theater. His co-star Robert De Niro, slumming it once more in the wake of his seventh Oscar nomination, was otherwise engaged. The same appears to be true of his performance, glazed-over even by his recent standards, as a terminally gruff former army colonel seeing out his retirement in a dingy log cabin in the wooded Deep South: embittered by the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, he has laid down his arms and assumed a fixed scowl as his weapon of choice.
Travolta, by contrast, is making more than enough effort for both of them as the Serbian war criminal once shot and left for dead by De Niro, and now out for retribution. Accessorizing his performance with a satin-sheen buzz cut, profoundly questionable facial hair and a thick Eastern Yoo-ro-pean accent that might kindly be described as ‘committed,” he”s the liveliest element of a film that takes the windy combat philosophies spouted by these two still-bloodthirsty dinosaurs alarmingly at face value. Evan Daugherty”s dim-witted script was once on the Black List, though it began life as a story of two WWII veterans. A script editor could argue for this one-size-fits-all context on the rationale that man keeps fighting the same wars over and over again, but the shift doesn”t say much for the narrative”s depth of insight or attention to detail.
In any event, the film”s puny politics prove beside the point as the story devolves into a particularly bloody, repetitive game of cat-and-mouse – Tom and Jerry, specifically, as De Niro and Travolta stalk each other around the forest, taking turns to exact brutal, cartoonish punishments. “Thread a rusty stake through my leg and hang from the trees, will ya? Fine, I”ll pin you to the wall with an arrow through your cheek, before waterboarding you with salty lemonade.” Katniss Everdeen never had it so tough.
I needn”t tell you that once they”ve run out of arrows, lemonade and stamina – which is, by the way, some time after Johnson runs out of ways to stage their ludicrous showdowns, though well before cinematographer Peter Menzies tires of his trusty khaki filter – these two grizzled warhorses realize that they have more in common than a mutual taste for Johnny Cash and grievous bodily harm: they”re scarred by the same conflict, you see. Travolta”s Alien, De Niro”s Predator; whoever wins, we, the audience, lose. On the plus side, I suppose it”s nice that they”re making torture porn for old men now.
“Killing Season””s superficially Balkan conscience at least gave it a faint thematic connection to a festival that, for all its astute cherry-picking of other festivals” highlights, is most significant as a showcase for new Eastern European cinema. So I”m happy to say that two of the best things I saw in my time there were both homegrown Czech productions, beginning with Jan Hrebejk”s slick but pleasingly knotty ghosts-of-the-past melodrama “Honeymoon” (B), which I”m told should be a significant local hit. It”s also a strong candidate to be the country”s foreign Oscar entry this year. Hrebejk”s “Divided We Fall” was nominated in 2000, and he”s been submitted twice since – most recently in 2010 with “Kawasaki”s Rose,” a complex tangle of Communist-era emotional debts that I admired at its Berlinale premiere.
I hadn”t realized until now that “Kawasaki”s Rose” was conceived as the first in a thematically linked trilogy of films about the damaging repercussions of secrets come to light – to which “Honeymoon” is the conclusion. I haven”t seen the intervening entry, 2011″s “Innocence,” though it would appear some tonal transition has taken place: there”s a vein of spry, charcoal-gray humor running through the new film that contrasts strongly with the poetic stoicism of “Rose,” though both films engage with cruel human truths. By situating the narrative in the fluid dramatic playground of a crowded country estate over a single weekend, Hrebejk seems to have at least one eye on Renoir”s deathless comedy of manners, “The Rules of the Game” – which is not to overstate the pleasures of a film that most recalls a wryer, slyer Susanne Bier.
We open on the lavish church wedding ceremony of attractive, well-to-do couple Tereza (Anna Geislerova) and Radim (Stanislav Mejer) – an event in which neighboring optician and apparent stranger Jan (Jiri Cerny) takes an inordinate amount of interest, cheerily photographing the wedding party and following them, unbidden, to the reception. Our tetchy bride, keen not to make a scene on her big day, is nonetheless anxious to evict this politely creepy crasher, who seems to harbor a crush on her Teutonic hubby. Hrebejk cleverly keeps her reactions pitched halfway between unwonted snobbery and reasonable panic, until the unwrapping of Jan”s wedding gift – a sturdy urn bearing his own name – suggests he”s out to upset more than just the seating plan.
“Theatrical” is all too often used by film critics as an unqualified putdown, but this is cinema that, in the best sense, unfolds like a good play. Hrebejk keeps multiple mysteries of identity and motivation in flux from one act to the next, faltering only in a denouement that hammers home its soapy ironies a shade too cleanly. His cast, meanwhile, is on point throughout – particularly Geislerova, whose brittle vulnerability and clean-scrubbed beauty would make her a pretty nifty replacement for Gwyneth Paltrow, should we someday lose the Oscar winner to macrobiotics forever. That likeness isn”t the only thing making it easy for me to imagine a smart Hollywood rejig of “Honeymoon,” though it hardly requires one.
The festival”s other Czech highlight came to me via a recommendation from festival director Karel Och: when I asked him for a personal favorite that I”d be less likely to see elsewhere, he directed me without hesitation to “DK” (B), a short, sharp, discomfitingly intimate documentary about the late Czech architect David Kopecky, a radical aesthetician who died in 2009, aged just 46, of a brain tumor. Far from a standard-issue cinematic eulogy, Bara Kopecka”s portrait is colored by equal doses of devotion and anger – as it would be, considering that Kopecka is the subject”s much put-upon widow. (As such, it”d make the spikier half of a double feature with Agnes Varda”s “Jacquot de Nantes.”)
It takes a lover, after all, to draw the compelling connection this film does between an artist”s professional triumphs and personal shortfalls. The architect was celebrated for his restless creativity and uncompromised individuality, but Kopecka doesn”t flinch from showing how these very virtues could make him aggressively difficult to live and/or work with – the film”s surfeit of home-video footage makes for some wincingly tough viewing, particularly as Kopecky becomes increasingly possessed by his illness. It”s a bruised, brave one-off that deserves beyond-borders travel on the festival circuit.